OPINION Trick is to take the bad with the good

I read a short story once in which an old master – a Rembrandt – was discovered in an attic and a huge argument ensued among experts about whether such an undiscovered treasure could possibly be genuine. Six months later, a second and identical painting turned up. Clearly they could not both be genuine, but the debate then turned on which was the fake.

That was the twist in the story. In fact, both were fakes, but people did not think of that possibility. Faced with a difficult choice, it never crossed their minds that both were worthless.

One of the most successful financial public relations people I have ever known used a variation of this technique. He understood that in business things often go wrong, but as a rule chief executives are loathe to admit this. His great insight was to persuade clients that they would have much more credibility in talking to the press about the good things if they also admitted to some of the bad. This demonstration not of weakness but of fallibility made the whole presentation that much more credible and the client appear more approachable.

From here it was just a short step into the more dubious territory of the fake Rembrandts. He observed that when journalists or investment analysts were presented with a statement containing good and bad news, they focused entirely on the bad, but were largely unques­tioning about the good. From here it was only a short step, when the occasion demanded, to start over-egging – if not quite wholly inventing the good – on the basis that it would probably get waved through on the nod if there were sufficient bad news to distract the hacks’ attention. He even on occasion over-egged the bad news to distract attention when the good news was flaky.

The benefit of this was that it never allowed a head of steam to build up against his client, the underperforming chief executive. They came across as people struggling to do a tough job against difficult odds. Today, they are almost always presented as supermen who deliver continual success and never make a mistake – which is why the moment they make one slip
they are out on their ear. They could use some old-fashioned PR.

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