I spent a day in the High Court a few years ago as an expert witness in a libel action. The high point came when I was asked why I had not shown any public sympathy for a certain corporate PR executive when that person had been abruptly fired by his employer . ‘Well that is what PR people are for,' I said. ‘To take the
blame when the boss gets caught doing something he shouldn't.'
Though this may have been the popular perception at the time, and while it may not be the image PR executives like to have of themselves, the world has moved on.
Indeed the resignation of Martin George as commercial director and Iain Burns as comms director of British Airways this week shows just how ideas have shifted. No one is suggesting that either did anything wrong, but George has taken responsibility for the actions of others who came under his direction, and which may possibly have been inappropriate.
The central allegation here is that someone in the PR department of the airline contacted someone in the PR department of Virgin - BA's competitor on the transatlantic route. It is alleged that the purpose of the call was to prompt an informal discussion about the timing and level of possible fuel surcharges. However, as this may all be the subject of legal action in the future, it is important to stress that nothing at this stage is proven and we are very much in the world of allegation and denial.
It is clearly a legitimate concern that a conversation along these lines between competitors might be seen as collusion to fix prices. One can therefore understand the sensitivities.
The difficulty is that part of the responsibility of a senior corporate PR executive is to act as the eyes and ears of senior management, and to be very well plugged in to industry issues and attitudes. That person should be on familiar terms with his or her opposite number in rival companies, and will probably have fairly regular contact with that person, as there are always non- competitive issues, from government regulation to the environment, where they have a common interest and where co-ordination makes sense.
This row shows what a fine line it is that the PR executive has to tread. BA may be the company in the spotlight; but there but by the Grace of God go very many others.
Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard