Company boards need comms skills

It is easy enough to see why Alain de Pouzilhac, chairman and CEO of French marcoms group Havas, should have been furious with Sir Martin Sorrell. The head of WPP had just comprehensively outmanoeuvred him to take over Grey Global, one of the few large ad agencies still to be independent.

What was fascinating, however, was that in seeking to put Sorrell down the Frenchman sought to attack his PR skills. Thus the Financial Times quoted him as saying, in what was intended as a put-down: ‘I must recognise and salute an excellent quality in Sir Martin Sorrell of managing speculation and, in effect, manipulating people…’

Just a few months back, I was lunching with David Varney, then mmO2 chairman and now HM Revenue & Customs executive chairman. Varney was worrying about the fact that so much of what a CEO has to do these days requires having communications skills, and yet it is something which the typical executive is just not trained for.

In the lower ranks of management, communications skills are rarely an issue. In France they have not got here yet. One of the fascinating things to emerge in recent business books on, for example, the rise and fall of Vivendi, is how status-driven French company boards still are. Directors rarely do anything as vulgar as talking to the press. They don’t bother to manipulate expectations because they don’t care what people outside their narrow circle think. It’s like Britain 30 years ago.

But before we get too smug about it, it’s worth noting how Sorrell and Varney are both far better communicators and far more plugged in to the intelligent use of PR than the leaders of most firms in this country.We are certainly ahead of France, but too many business leaders in Britain today think a bit of media training is all it takes when, in fact, that is just the beginning, not the end.

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