OPINION: Professional firms are scared to talk

One of the most noticeable changes in City life in the past decade has been the willingness of professional firms to put themselves about. When I started in this business, accountants, lawyers, chartered surveyors and actuaries were not even allowed to advertise.

The ban became unsustainable when these firms began to evolve from professional firms to those run as businesses. After that it was only a matter of time before they went the whole hog into PR and marketing.

Today, a substantial proportion of the 300-plus emails that get sent to me every week are from professional firms.

They have acted on a deal, and offer comment; they have read a government paper, and offer comment; the stock market has moved, and they offer comment; or they have produced a survey, and they offer comment.

Most of these communications have an appendix headed ‘Notes for Editors’, which should provide background information that helps the journalist understand the story. However, professional firms seem to think the purpose is to deliver a shameless plug: ‘Company X is a law firm that advises the world’s leading companies, financial institutions and governments on their most challenging transactions and assignments. With offices in major financial centres, we deliver an outstanding service to our clients anywhere in the world.’

This is not PR, it’s indifferent marketing – as journalists are wont to discover if they ask an unsolicited question. It is interesting how few companies know how to react when probed on something that goes beyond their established comfort zone, and enters areas where opinion and judgement come into play. Such enquiries ought to play to their strengths – they are professionals after all – but the opposite is too often the case.

When pursuing something arcane last week, almost no one was prepared to provide me with a view. It became obvious that talking to the press was allowed only when it could be based on written documents produced by the firm.

Any­thing beyond this risked being uncontrolled, so was not allowed. That is not PR, it is advertising.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London’s Evening Standard

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