The Perils of Public Relations | The Economist
SCERTAIN DECADES a few years ago, Bartleby covered the results of a company which was then in FTSE index 100. It was brought into the offices of the company’s public relations agency, after which the chatterbox RP man (still an industry titan today) embarked on a ten-minute monologue on the company’s strategy. At that moment, a subordinate stuck his head through the door and RP the man was called. “Thank goodness he’s gone,” said the managing director. “Now I can tell you what’s really going on. “
Any large business may need a team to manage its public image and deal with the “reptiles” of the press, as Denis Thatcher has dubbed them. (This extends to RP companies: This week, reports of inappropriate behavior forced the boss of a large company, Teneo, to resign.) But once you start employing RP people, it can be hard to stop. In a variation of Parkinson’s Law, “RP expands to fill the available budget. Companies can hire an internal team while choosing to use a RP solidify. And in case of bad news, the bosses often want to call on a firm specializing in “crisis management”.
The goal of a business is to frame the narrative favorably. Any business wants to be seen not as a money-hungry business that pollutes the environment and exploits its workers, but as an innovative pioneer with sustainable operations and a social conscience. An expert RP executive can refine such a message and identify the best way to communicate it to investors and the general public, for example by selecting journalists and publications that will lend a listening ear.
At least that’s the theory. In practice, most relationships between journalists and RP professionals look like “groundhog day”. Day 1 : RP the person sends an email about the customer. Day 2: RP the person sends a follow-up email to verify that the reporter received a previous missive. Day 3: RP no one calls the reporter to make sure he is aware of the e-mails. Day 4: RP sends a new email for the same customer and the process starts over.
Perhaps this frantic activity has some use. It’s possible that a post is in desperate need of filling up some space or is seeking the opinion of a random leader on an issue of the day. But in most cases, this only serves to irritate the caller who has to deal with the harassment.
The poor office juniors at the RP companies are given the thankless task of chasing email. More experienced staff are operating face to face, or at least did so before the pandemic. They tend to come in three types. The first is the interventionist mentioned above, who pontificates as if he were actually part of the board of directors of the company concerned. Sympathetic on the surface, these RP people tend to become condescending or hostile if the reporter asks an uncomfortable question. An unfavorable article will be followed by a furious phone call (Lord X will be very disappointed with your article) or even an attempt to influence the publisher.
The second RP the type is much more discreet. Some disseminate a minimal amount of information as part of a deliberate policy to keep their customers off the headlines. Others are fond of publicity but keep a Trappist silence during meetings, content to take notes and enjoy expensive lunches while the client speaks. In addition to inflating the income of the restaurant industry, it can be difficult to discern the function of this group.
There is a third group. Some RP people provide useful facts about the company when asked, give a clear indication of the veracity of market rumors, and set up an interview with the CEO if necessary. These useful RP people are unevenly dispersed in 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 maintain a love-hate relationship with the RP industry. However irritating RP people can be, they are often one of the only channels for information about a business. And many hackers in their 30s and 40s choose to join the industry in order to earn a bigger salary. In a sense, the relationship is an ecosystem, in which both parties see each other as parasites.
Whether companies should fund this system is another question, as the main benefits accrue to the participants. A lot of RP the activity has no impact on the client’s public profile. It sounds like a more extreme version of the famous advertising quote: Three-quarters of the money I spend on public relations is wasted – the problem is, which three-quarters.
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “The Perils of Public Relations”