OPINION: Briefings ruined by silent minders

For the first time in ages, I met a FTSE 100 chairman for lunch last week without a PR executive sitting in.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

She had been excused on the grounds that we had known each other since 1982 - or to put it another way, since the afore-mentioned consultant was four years old. After a quarter of a century he reckoned his secrets were safe with me. 

I was suitably flattered but it does not happen often. This could be because I am not perceived to be as trustworthy as I like to think I am, but I prefer the explanation from another industrial big name. We have met dozens of times but last time he turned up accompanied by a junior.

He explained that his non-executive directors would no longer allow him to meet a journalist unaccompanied. It was part of the company's risk control strategy, he said - with a straight face.

It is a daft policy and must be boring for the minder sitting there in silence while we rabbit on. It is daft because if I want to talk to a chief executive, one on one, there are endless rounds of social events to which they and the press are invited.

And if socialising is too much like hard work I have most of their home or mobile phone numbers - if only because most have phoned me on my mobile on some occasion over the years and surprisingly few use number withheld.

But more to the point, the policy is counterproductive. The purpose of these meetings presumably is for the journalist to be brought up to speed with what is happening in the company.

The unaccompanied chairman did this with aplomb and ran through some examples of office politics and executive rivalry in the organisation that provided a coherent explanation for some of the company's recent aberrant behaviour. It was mildly indiscreet and extremely useful. I understood the business much better by the end of it.

People do not talk like that when there is a third party in attendance. Control freak non-executives would say that is the point. But it simply means we tend to talk about everything apart from the company - politics, the competition, the economy - where again the executive can be indiscreet. But as far as the real issues facing the business are concerned, I leave none the wiser.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard 

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