At the height of his powers at Trafalgar House, Sir Nigel Broackes ran one of the country's largest construction groups, owned Express Newspapers, was chairman of the company managing the building of the Channel Tunnel and, on top of all that, owned the Ritz, where he lunched financial journalists.
These lunches were often a source of gossip about every leading politician, businessman and company - apart from Trafalgar House. He was always quite open about his motives. There was no story about his own business he wished to impart, but he wanted to maintain media contact, in the hope that he would get a sympathetic hearing ‘if things go suddenly sour'. He did indeed call in his markers as some of his business interests unravelled, but he personally escaped the savaging that lesser businessmen would have suffered.
You rarely get the same closeness between businessmen and journalists today, partly because company bosses tend not to be in the job for long and because few have such a grip on power. But last week, Charles Dunstone of Carphone Warehouse showed there is no PR defence as effective as a personal relationship with hacks.
First, there was a rash of horror stories about how the company had underestimated demand and been overwhelmed by applications for its ‘free broadband' service, disappointing thousands of unhappy customers.
Then Dunstone struck a multi-million-pound deal to buy AOL's UK internet business, in a move that not only seemed a long stretch from selling mobile phone handsets on the high street, but also seemed a lot of money to pay for a tired brand. The week ended with the biggest mobile operator, Vodafone, announcing that it was moving its handset business to a rival high-street chain.
Dunstone is fortunate in that his PR is handled by Citigate Dewe Rogerson's Tony Carlisle, who not only gives the impression that he really understands the telecoms business, but has a special talent for welding the most erratic series of behaviours into a coherent-looking business strategy. Carphone was the biggest story in the weekend press, with coverage that would have cost a fortune to buy. And it was almost all positive.