OPINION: PR scrutiny often the toughest

I had a call the other day from a PR executive I have known for some years, who had recently moved to a big financial PR consultancy.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

At the end of a conversation about one of his clients he mentioned that it might be fun to have a catch up lunch, 'Assuming that you do have lunch with PROs.'

The self-effacing comment caught me off guard. ' I love having lunch with PROs,' I replied, albeit a bit too effusively. 'They are the only people who tell me the truth.'

That came out rather more bluntly than I intended but it points to a real problem. One of the big changes in my time in financial journalism - 40 years this month I am alarmed to say - is the nature of the relationship between the corporate executive and the journalist.

For certainly the first half of my career if you had the wit to ask an executive a question you would get a straight answer. There might well be a request that the reply be off the record, but there would be a reply.

These days straight answers are in short supply. Indeed one newspaper last weekend quoted the boss of BHP Billiton telling a colleague during a press interview that 'If you answer that question I'll kill you.' More prosaically, any question about numbers gets bounced back with reference to what analysts are saying - as if that has any value.

Any question about strategy or what makes the company special risks an excursion into the more fatuous areas of business school jargon. Most executives employ minders to make sure they never say anything remotely useful, successfully as it turns out.

Indeed some tell me the non-executive directors insist that, as part of risk control policies, no executive is allowed to meet a journalist unaccompanied.

By a curious quirk of fate it now falls to the PR to ask the client the nasty questions, to seize on uncomfortable truths and to force him or her to confront the limitations of what they are doing or where the company is going.

This seems to be a major area where PROs add value, bringing the executive sharply down to earth. They do this under the pretext of rehearsing the executive for the grilling he or she is likely to get from journalists. The irony is, of course, that the hacks these days are rarely as bad or as aggressive as the rehearsal.

Anthony Hilton is City commentator on London's Evening Standard 

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