Anthony Hilton: Deal with the source of 'gossip'

I wrote a piece in the London Evening Standard the other week that made some critical comments about one of our big banks.

Anthony Hilton
Anthony Hilton

A few hours later word came back indirectly via a colleague that its in-house PR guru was convinced I had been 'put up to it' by another party.

The accusation is not true, and it does not bother me at all, but what is interesting is that this was by no means an untypical reaction.

It often seems that the first response by in-house PR directors when their business comes under attack is to assume there is some plot afoot - that the piece is part of a conspiracy. They assume the journalist has been briefed by competitors to do the business down.

Believe me, I am not claiming this never happens - competitors are almost always volunteering sly digs at each other, most of which are juicy and quite a few of which are true. But part of the journalist's job is realising that most do not pass the 'so what' test, in the sense of being interesting to a wider audience. As a result, 99 per cent of this stuff never sees the light of day. Such gossip rarely gets serious. It remains rare, outside the context of a takeover battle, for anyone to embark on a sustained strategy to destabilise another firm.

It is odd, therefore, that this should be the first assumption of those on the receiving end, and it is probably not particularly healthy. Scotland's national poet Robert Burns remarked 200 years ago on the need to be able to see ourselves as others see us, and this surely is one of the great roles of the in-house PR department. But if every bit of serious criticism is dismissed as being the product of plotting by rivals with dark motives, then this opportunity is lost.

A healthier reaction, surely, is not to agree with the critics but to take note of the fact that the comments reflect a view held out there somewhere. The aim should be to question objectively how much validity it has, and what might be done to remove the cause for concern, or the misunderstandings that lie beneath it. To do anything else is to lose an opportunity - and to leave a problem out there that might go away if it is not addressed, but that equally might well get a lot worse.

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