Opinion: Legality has made PROs speechless

The Stock Exchange from time to time hosts seminars at which investor relations people are briefed on how to identify and reach their target audiences.

Last week at one such event I gave a talk on what the financial press was interested in and how best to access it.

As usual the feedback was the most interesting part of the session. It turned out that what troubled the audience most was the degree to which they could explain or enlarge upon a press release when questioned by journalists. Most felt they could add nothing to the release, even if doing so would help the message to be understood more clearly, for fear of being accused of giving an illegal selective briefing.

My understanding is that selective briefings are only illegal when the information concerned is price sensitive, but no one can be sure in advance what is price sensitive, and there is no point in relying on common sense when lawyers and compliance officers are the judges of what can or cannot be said. The 11th commandment of those professions is to ensure their back is covered at all times. They have no interest in communication because it can cause complications.

Against this background you can see why there is reluctance to say anything not on the pre-cleared script.

So what is the point of adding to a release the magic words 'for further information contact...'? Or having an in-house PR person at all? One could go further: what is the point of having journalists if they are expected to only write up press releases so their judgement – flawed though it often is – is reduced to merely picking which releases should run in the available space? Financial PR would become the equivalent of product placement. No doubt some companies would be delighted. Whether it would lead to better-informed investors is another matter.

anthony.hilton@haynet.com

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