Analysis: Does your reputation precede you?

Former Mirror Group CEO David Montgomery and British Airways chief Willie Walsh are in PR overdrive to counter their cost-cutter reputations. Tom Williams looks at how past deeds can weigh heavily on senior executives

Anyone who believes the past is done with, does not read the financial pages. City journalists will always give their readers a helpful reminder of what company bigwigs got up to in a past life.

Last month British Airways CEO Willie Walsh and former Mirror Group chief executive David Montgomery launched pre-emptive PR strikes to stave off negative media coverage surrounding their latest ventures.

Montgomery has assigned Brunswick to his acquisition of media group Berliner Verlag, to handle a German press fearful of the Anglo-Saxon cost-cutting style for which he was renowned at the Mirror (PRWeek, 28 October). BA head of corporate comms Iain Burns, meanwhile, is doing everything in his power to ensure the 'slasher' reputation Walsh earned at Aer Lingus (see box) does not muddy perceptions of the airline under his reign.

But you would be hard-pushed to find a senior City journalist ready to abandon such evocative epithets.

History lesson
'If any high-profile businessman were to return with a new venture his history would be the story, especially if it was a poor history,' explains The Times deputy City editor Martin Waller. 'We have a duty to the investors to report this. The only way you might get away with it is if no one on the paper knew the history, but someone usually does.'

Evening Standard City correspondent Robert Lea, who writes for the  City Spy column, agrees: 'A reader needs to know the hinterland, especially if we don't know anything else about the person.' But he offers a chink of light for PROs: 'It can be a question of emphasis – whether you lead on the past or mention it as background.'

Financial Times Mudlark columnist Clay Harris offers further guidance: 'There is perhaps a style issue when adjectives such as "cost-slasher" or "beleaguered" are used in a lazy way. If somebody's background is relevant and you can explain why, it is right to review that record. But it can become a cliché to keep going back to someone's past deeds when he or she has become established in a new venture.'

Beneficial profile-raising can cloud the issue, too. Much of the coverage of former Granada chairman Sir Gerry Robinson's abandoned plans to acquire Rentokil referred to his fronting of BBC programme I'll Show Them Who's Boss. While Robinson's PRO, Cubitt Consulting managing partner Simon Brocklebank-Fowler, points out that his client's celebrity businessman status was irrelevant 'with the people that mattered, the investors', he concedes that moving from the 'quoted company arena into the public media environment is a hard trick to pull off'.

But a skeleton in the cupboard can ultimately clinch the coverage. Waller says a chequered history 'gets you column space', citing his own report in March on former British & Commonwealth chairman John Gunn's re-appearance with the AIM flotation of Rotala Group – 'after spending much of the 1990s clearing himself of blame for B&C's collapse'.

City journalists have a long memory and it is well-nigh impossible to escape the past. But you can at least use it to seize the agenda.

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