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The conscience keeper

23 April 2019

The head of the PR department at a major financial institution said the other day that since taking his current job he rarely did any communicating with the outside world.

The head of the PR department at a major financial institution said the other day that since taking his current job he rarely did any communicating with the outside world. His firm still did – he had a big department with teams that were dedicated to pushing out messages but he was entirely inwardly focused.

Instead he dedicated himself to looking at the company’s products and activities – all of which are totally legal and in many cases have been part of the company’s business for years – trying to work out which of these well-established practices carried the seeds of a future reputational disaster.

His task was to bring these concerns to the attention of the board and to argue that the product or service should be modified or withdrawn. He was trying to prevent disasters from happening in the first place, rather than deal with them afterwards as is traditionally the case with PR. One might justifiably pause to consider what sort of world we live in when the PR spokesman is the keeper of the company’s conscience, but it says a lot about how companies organise themselves.

This organisation employs a substantial number of people on risk management who no doubt do a good job. Yet they are clearly not very good at picking up on the kind of risks the PR guru was looking for because he brought to the task three things: a fresh pair of eyes, an outside world perspective, and the ability to make subjective value-driven judgements, as opposed to being guided by numbers.

However, even this would not be enough were it not for two other factors. First, he had a personal relationship with and is trusted by the chief executive and therefore has access to the top of the company. Second, he is not part of the mainstream operation so does not have a personal stake in any of the products he is concerned about – or anything to gain if a rival hits trouble.

This meant that he could be objective when others saw only career risk if their own products were cited or internal political risk if they passed judgement on the activities of another. The PR guru is a unique figure in the organisation: well connected, well informed, but not tied to any particular interest group – and therefore suited to be the eyes and ears for the board.

Time will tell whether his results will lead to a long-term reduction in damaging reputational issues, but if it does it will be a success for the PR industry. So often the spinners seem to be part of the problem not part of the solution. It is interesting how, while the industry has prospered in recent times, there seems to have been no reduction in the number of corporate crises. According to YouGov, the UK PR industry this year is expected to be worth £9.62 billion – an increase of 28% on the levels of 2011.

Some might argue that expecting PR spending to reduce disasters is to put the cart before the horse – that firms have the catastrophe then call in the PR firm to help handle the aftermath. However, the reality is that most firms which hit trouble already have PR, and the number of disaster
specialists is quite small in the overall context of the spend.

There are clearly few with the internal power and status to do the kind of job that the a forementioned guru has taken on. Yet it is a job that someone has to do. In most organisations there is an information glass ceiling – risk officers find it difficult to sound the alarm about people who are above their pay grade. Information rises to a certain level but only goes further once it has been heavily sanitised. By the time it gets to the board the chances are the core message has been lost.

Medieval kings used to rely on the court jester to speak truth onto power – cut through the sycophancy and selfinterested plotting of the courtiers to tell them what they might not like to hear. Companies have a similar need – but too often fail to address it.

Anthony Hilton is financial editior of the London Evening Standard

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