How else could one explain why it is that in an age when there are more and better trained PR professionals than ever, and when almost all the executives put up for interview on radio or TV have clearly had their time on the media training couch, the overall results are so dire. There is no way that I know to test objectively the following proposition but I would submit that companies today have a worse public image and are far less successful at communicating than they were 20 years ago. Yet the resources spent on PR have multiplied exponentially.
I think it all started to go wrong in the early 1990s when executives fell for the half-baked US theory that they were there to deliver shareholder value, the main component of which was a higher share price. At the same time the fashion came in to add to their already generous salaries, linked to share price. Then came new laws on insider dealing which, once mangled by risk-averse lawyers, decreed in effect that no executive could say anything to the press that he had not already said publicly before to someone else.
Communications gradually turned into an elaborate gavotte where the only thing that mattered was the share price and that nothing should be done to damage it. That is where we are today. Corporate comms is targeted largely at discredited sell-side analysts who produce discredited research that is largely ignored, even by mediocre fund managers, but unfortunately still lapped up by naïve journalists. This blinds companies to what should be the obvious truth – the public don’t give a damn about share price.
The real comms challenge is to preserve, protect and enhance reputation in every area where it affects the public. This requires engagement with the media with an openness that is quite the opposite of the fakedresponse, the rictus grin and the matching thinking of the training couch. Reputation is the biggest challenge in a generation for companies, but almost none of them have got it.
Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London’s Evening Standard