OPINION: Rival bashing easier than home truths

It has always been the case in PR that it is much easier to tell lies about a competitor than it is to tell the truth about one's own client.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

It is nevertheless bizarre that a side effect of regulation is to make this legally the preferred option. Well, perhaps that is a bit of exaggeration, but you know where I am coming from.

The main feature of February and early March this year, as in previous years, is the bank reporting season. This year, of course, it comes with added tension because the banks are grappling with big losses.

This in turn raises questions about what they will do, within the law, to avoid disclosing the full extent of those possible losses and the simmering rows with their auditors.

However, when the results are published they are generally impenetrable, at least in the short term, because the documents are so large and complex that they defy speedy analysis. In such circumstances the obvious question for the directors or heads of PR is 'where are the bodies buried'? That of course is the question no-one will answer even if they know the truth.

They cannot give such information to one, without giving it to all. And they have no intention of giving it to all.

The laws on market abuse and insider dealing heavily prescribe what management can say. All the banks report and behave in a similar way so it is hard for one to emerge clearly in front of the others.

But it is important for them - for reasons of management ego if for nothing else - to be seen to have an edge over their rivals. In that immortal phrase: 'It is not enough for them to succeed; their enemies have to be seen to fail.'

Thus in the few hours after a bank report, those of us who have to comment are offered guidance on how the results might best be interpreted.

The amusing thing is that this assistance comes not from the banks publishing the figures, but from organisations connected with their rivals - it might be a PRO, it might be an investment banker, it might be an analyst - and on one occasion last week it was the chief executive of one of the other banks. They all find it so much easier to talk eloquently about the opposition than candidly about themselves.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard

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