OPINION: Big PR team can equal big trouble

A rule of thumb that has held up well through all the ups and downs of the economic cycle is that the larger a company’s PR department, the less competent its PR is likely to be.

Hilton: City commentator, London’s <em>Evening Standard</em>
Hilton: City commentator, London’s Evening Standard

This was as true of ICI in its heyday 30 years ago – when it employed 50 or more PR professionals and was rarely properly understood or appreciated – as it is true of banks today. They tend to be vast organisations, with a huge variety of products and a great range of customers and operations. And yet no-one understands them.

Most banks have a mini army of comms people, and yet as the meltdown in the sub-prime markets shows, they still find it difficult to get even the simplest things right. It is a basic rule of financial PR that when there is bad news to tell, the organisation should be as frank and open as possible, as early as possible, so that it can control the agenda, take the adverse hit and move on to focus on the positives and recovery.

Nothing is worse than having nasty surprises dribble out unannounced, while the PR machine is busy either refusing to comment or issuing statements that raise more questions than
they answer.

The curse of size is that within big departments people are so bogged down in process that they forget what they are there for. They have elaborate internal pecking orders, where only senior members of the team are allowed to talk to senior financial journalists, and so on down the line. This means that the more junior reporters get the more junior comms people. And yet they are the ones who need the most experienced help.

It is also symptomatic of inward-looking departments that they become dysfunctional in a crisis. They can churn out routine stuff but simply do not know how to react when confronted by something out of the ordinary – in this case, a market meltdown. Even the most senior internal PROs can lack proper access to the top management. As a result, they are not properly briefed, or find themselves outranked by in-house lawyers advising everyone to say nothing.

Size does not matter. Far better to have one PR executive with the ear of the CEO, than 50 dedicated professionals to whom he never talks.


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