It has been an extraordinary year for what the general media likes to
call ‘PR disasters’, but which are almost always self-inflicted
management blunders caused by ignoring the PR consequences of business
Few companies have had a rougher ride in this respect than British Gas.
Now, as the year draws to a close, one of the company’s PR advisers has
also come under fire. Angus Maitland has been accused of ‘dirty tricks’
after handing a document attacking Ofgas regulator Clare Spottiswoode to
an Independent journalist.
Embarrassingly for British Gas, it comes at the same time as the
revelation that one of its internal memos, which falsely questioned the
ability of rival United Gas to pay its bills, had been leaked to the
Labour Party by persons unknown.
Since the phrase ‘dirty tricks’ entered the language during the
BA/Virgin saga, it has been applied to a host of situations with
increasing inaccuracy. It is not, for example, ‘dirty tricks’ to
criticise a competitor openly, provided it is fair and accurate. Nor is
it ‘dirty tricks’ for companies to criticise their industry regulators.
It happens all the time, and no one bats an eyelid.
The information supplied by Maitland about Spottiswoode was unremarkable
in this respect, although it might be considered distasteful. For her
part, Clare Spottiswoode has dismissed the matter as ‘juvenile’. But
Maitland has been lambasted by the press - not so much for the content
of the document - but for the ‘anonymous’ manner in which it was
In response, he argues that the material was given openly by him to a
journalist, and that he has never supplied information anonymously. He
has also said that the information was already in the public domain, and
that he was not acting on the express wishes of his client in handing it
British Gas, for its part, insists ‘there is no smear campaign being run
from British Gas’.
That may be so, but there is something repugnant about the sight of a
British Gas adviser supplying material critical of the Ofgas regulator
in a manner which is at arm’s length from the company.
Off the record briefings - which can include written material - are a
necessary part of the working relationship between journalists and PR
people. They allow companies to give background information to
journalists without having to take an official stance on every aspect of
But even if the information supplied is ultimately inconsequential,
public relations consultants should never say anything off the record
that their client is not ultimately prepared to repeat in public.