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21/02/2006
How corporate PR has turned into the art of stonewallingBy Sathnam SangheraPublished: February 10 2006 02:00 | Last updated: February 10 2006 02:00
Spooky. Just as I settle down to write something about the financial public relations industry, an e-mail arrives from Emma Brown, an undergraduate at Boston University's College of Communication, saying: "I am assigned to conduct an interview with a professional reporter about the likes and dislikes of journalists and relationships with PR practitioners. At your earliest convenience, I would love to conduct a phone interview."
No need for a phone interview, Emma. In relation to the first issue, I can tell you here that journalists like: money and giving each other awards. We do not like: early mornings. Meanwhile, I have been considering the latter issue for more than a month now, after a colleague popped by one morning and began an all-too-familiar spiel about how he "enjoyed my work BUT . . ."
Normally, this BUT has me inserting fingers into the nearest electrical socket, BUT as this BUT came from one of my favourite people, I resisted the urge and listened as he argued that I needed to write more often about proper businesses that actually made things.
Agreeing, I said I would visit any company he recommended, and a few weeks ago I found myself travelling to the Gloucestershire town of Wooton-under-Edge, walking past the peacocks - peacocks! - that strut outside the converted mill - converted mill! - that houses the headquarters of Renishaw, a world leader in metrology systems - metrology systems!
Sir David McMurtry is the 66-year-old founder, chairman and chief executive of one of Britain's most successful engineering companies, which specialises in making equipment that enables manufacturers to measure distances as small as two-hundredths of the thickness of a human hair. He welcomed me with a cup of tea and we set about discussing subjects ranging from the importance of investing in research and development, to the country house he is building near his factory (it is triple-glazed and powered entirely by a nearby river), to Renishaw's ultra-high-speed five-axis measurement system that deploys an infinite-positioning probe head.
All in all it was a fascinating way to spend an hour. But for me, the most interesting point came when Sir David remarked: "Did you notice that we don't employ an outside public relations firm? We've got an in-house press officer but that's all. When we went public in 1984, we hired some but they never impressed me."
Listening to this, I realised that my meeting with Renishaw was the first time in eight years as a business journalist that I had dealt with a listed company without a public relations person being involved. Indeed, corporate spin has come a very long way since Forbes magazine complained, 85 years ago, that "a great many corporations have not yet awakened to the importance of placing themselves before the public in the proper light".
Nowadays, everyone in business employs a PR consultant. Even a man I called in to test my keyboard for germs arrived with a spin doctor. And while some people may say Sir David's view is old-fashioned, I think he has a point.
Of course, journalists are set up to have a low view of PRs: they stand in the way of us getting information. But I do not share this view. As with journalists, I have found that some PRs are excellent, while others have the charm and wherewithal of baboons. Also, I realise that financial public relations people now do much more than deal with reporters: many dabble in analyst relations, investor relations, internal communications and provide strategic advice to chief executives, whose attitude to the media is generally akin to Osama bin Laden's attitude to the Central Intelligence Agency. BUT I do think that there is too much corporate PR, it is too aggressive and too much of it involves saying no.
A couple of years ago I had the idea of writing a weekly business interview in this newspaper. After a month or two, I gave up because so few chief executives were willing to talk. Last year, for a pretty inconsequential piece on executive cars, I called around the offices of eight leading chief executives to find out what vehicles they were driven in. All but two declined to comment.
The joke used to go: "How manyPR people does it take to changea lightbulb? Don't know, I'll have to get back to you on that one." Increasingly, the punchline feelslike: "I'm not going to tell you."
It may just be that executive types do not want to talk to me. But from speaking to other business journalists, I think this reticence is widespread. It is also heightened by the fact that there is now so much money in corporate PR - spending on PR in the US alone reached $3.7bn (£2.1bn) last year, according to investment bank Veronis Suhler Stevenson - that no PR consultant dares risk a mistake.
There has been a backlash against such excessive control freakery in British politics, and in a report on the PR industry in 2003, Corporate Watch, a non-governmental pressure group, declared that "modern public relations practices are having a very significant deleterious impact on the democratic process".
I would not go that far. But, Emma, if things continue this way, conducting business journalism will become about as fun and illuminating as compiling a stock market price listings page.

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