Judge and Jury: PR cannot take the blame for Yorkshire’s ’fat cat’ headlines - The media consequences of revelations about Yorkshire Water’s decision to award a 30 per cent pay bonus to certain directors were predictable, b

Ever since privatisation, the water companies have been portrayed in the media as inefficient, wasteful and greedy. Yorkshire Water suffered more than most for the way it handled consumer advice during water shortages.

Ever since privatisation, the water companies have been portrayed

in the media as inefficient, wasteful and greedy. Yorkshire Water

suffered more than most for the way it handled consumer advice during

water shortages.



PressWatch, which monitors and charts the positives and negatives of

media coverage gave Yorkshire Water a score of -297 in 1994 (neutral

coverage was scored at zero). A negative rating of that magnitude is not

quickly or easily reversed.



Yorkshire Water’s public relations people know what they are up

against.



The way they dealt with media interest in directors’ pay bonuses was

competent, although they appeared to react to rather than manage the

situation. The company’s statements, mainly attributed to a ’Yorkshire

Water spokesman’, made reasonable points about improving performance,

attracting quality people etc. It was on message, but it didn’t grab the

headlines.



The company’s critics were much more prominent: Matt Phillips questioned

all the water companies’ environmental records on behalf of Friends of

the Earth; Chancellor Gordon Brown was reported to be ’angry’; Michael

Clapham, MP was quoted in the Daily Telegraph saying: ’it’s clearly

another example of a reduction in public service and directors ripping

off the company.’



Result? All the headlines and most of the stories were about ’fat cat

pay rows’, not about reductions in leakage or other improvements in

performance.



The poor media image is perpetuated. No amount of after-the-event spin

doctoring was going to change that. What could make a big difference for

Yorkshire Water, is a board of directors who give serious consideration

to PR advice when formulating policy on a whole range of issues - not

just directors’ renumeration. This means having professional PR advice

available at board level.



A few directors are recognising that a company’s reputation can be worth

millions. It is not sound management to make decisions without

considering their likely impact on your biggest asset. The way Yorkshire

Water’s board has just treated its corporate reputation suggests it has

a long way to go before it handles shareholder value with the respect it

deserves.



If Yorkshire Water’s reputation is leaking away faster than its product,

that’s not the fault of the PR department.



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