Companies can get sucked in to spending too much on their image
Some decades ago, Bartleby was covering the results of a company that was then in the FTSE 100 index. He was ushered into the offices of the firm’s public-relations outfit, whereupon the smooth-talking PR man (still a titan of the industry today) launched into a ten-minute monologue about the company’s strategy. At that point, a subordinate popped his head around the door and the pr man was called away. “Thank goodness, he’s gone,” said the chief executive. “Now I can tell you what is really happening.”
Any big business may need a team to handle its public image and to deal with the “reptiles” of the press, as Denis Thatcher dubbed them. (This extends to PR firms: this week reports of inappropriate behaviour forced the boss of a big one, Teneo, to resign.) But once you start employing PR people, it can be difficult to stop. In a variant of Parkinson’s law, “PR expands to fill the budget available.” Companies can hire an in-house team while also choosing to use an external PR firm. And if bad news strikes, bosses often want to call in a firm that specialises in “crisis management”.
A company’s aim is to frame the narrative in a favourable manner. Any firm wants to be seen not as a money-grubbing corporation that pollutes the environment and exploits its workers but as an innovative pioneer with sustainable operations and a social conscience. An expert PR executive can hone such a message and identify the best way of communicating it to investors and the wider public, for example, by selecting the journalists and publications which will lend it a sympathetic ear.
That is the theory, at least. In practice, most journalists’ dealings with PR professionals resemble “groundhog day”. Day 1: PR person sends email about client. Day 2: PR person sends follow-up email to check journalist received earlier missive. Day 3: PR person calls journalist to make absolutely certain that they are aware of the emails’ existence. Day 4: PR sends a fresh email about the same client, and the process begins anew.
Perhaps this frenetic activity has a use. There is a chance that some publication has a desperate need to fill space, or was looking for a random executive’s views on an issue of the day. But in most cases, it only serves to irritate the correspondent who has to deal with the pestering.
The poor office juniors at the PR companies are given the thankless task of chasing emails. More senior staff operate face-to-face, or at least did in the pre-pandemic days. They tend to come in three types. The first is the interventionist mentioned earlier, who pontificates as if they were actually on the board of the company concerned. Friendly on the surface, these PR people tend to get patronising or hostile if the journalist asks an uncomfortable question. An unfavourable piece will be followed up with an angry phone call (Lord X will be very disappointed by your article) or even an attempt to influence the editor.
The second PR type is much more discreet. Some issue the minimal amount of information as part of a deliberate policy to keep their clients out of the headlines. Others are keen on publicity but maintain a Trappist-like silence in meetings, content only to take notes and enjoy expensive lunches while the client talks. Apart from inflating the revenues of the restaurant industry, it can be hard to discern what function this group serves.
There is a third group. Some PR people supply useful facts about the company when asked, give an accurate steer on whether market rumours are true, and arrange an interview with the chief executive when required. These helpful PR people are scattered unevenly across the corporate sector. It is virtually impossible to predict where they will be found.
The existence of these three categories is not the only reason journalists have a love-hate relationship with the PR industry. However irritating PR people can be, they are often one of the only conduits for information about a company. And many hacks in their 30s and 40s opt to join the industry as a way of earning a bigger salary. In a sense, the relationship is an ecosystem, in which both parties regard the other as the parasites.
Whether companies need to finance this system is another matter, as the main benefits go to the participants. A lot of PR activity has zero impact on the client’s public profile. It seems like a more extreme version of the famous quote about advertising: three-quarters of the money I spend on public relations is wasted – the problem is knowing which three-quarters.