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A PR's perspective on the Hewlett Packard Enterprise/Financial Times spat: The medium is not your message

By Elisabeth Field, managing director

February 8, 2016 | 4 min read

I can think of many reasons to be cross at journalists. Breaking promises. Typos. Misusing quotes. Unnecessary rudeness.

Elisabeth Field

But voicing their opinion on one of our clients? Um … nope, that’s fine by me. It’s their job. The value of opinion is increasing in today’s media and the lure of columnists, with their wit and sometimes wisdom, is now a major magnet for all savvy publishers.

However, HP Enterprise's spat with the FT’s Lucy Kellaway paddles into some deeper waters. Waters which are increasingly murky because they tend to sit at odds with every other business relationship.

When he wrote that email, Henry Gomez set HP up as an aggrieved customer. If you’re pouring thousands of dollars into a company, you come to expect a level of corporate respect in return. And he didn’t get it.

His full letter, released this morning by the HP comms team, shows how easy it is to wade too deep. "Obviously”, he writes, “you and the FT are free to write about the topics you select. I’ve read your bio and respect your right to 'poke fun' at management. But you still have an obligation to get it right. And FT management should consider the impact of unacceptable biases on its relationships with advertisers."

Unfortunately, even prefaced by a declaration of respect for editorial independence, the last line has a hard time distancing itself from a veiled threat. A little too Tucker-ish, perhaps.

That, of course, is the weird, weird world of print advertising. And why it’s in decline. In context with a brutal and respected opinion, your expensive full-page ad feels a bit impotent, serving only to prove how much money you’re spending.

What it does not do, for instance, is grant you indemnity from seasoned and sometimes vicious reporters. That’s the game: play it or not.

This is also why PR, in the form that Kellaway describes it, is losing as much relevance as the print pages it once tried to influence. We left the endless luvvie lunches, fresh flowers and forced smiles in the ‘90s. Most of us today hear these stories as great myth and legend. And thank God for that.

PR is not about getting people to like you. PR won’t save you when your business is corrupt or wrap you up in cotton wool when your CEO is called out. PR is also not there as a roadblock for reporters briefed to do a good job.

PR is now about reaching deep into the business and reducing the likelihood of those problems happening in the first place rather than covering them up. It coaches businesses on how to apologise when things do go wrong, not silence or threaten those who want to blow the whistle. It helps a company talk confidently and honestly about its achievements, accept graciously its mistakes

As Gomez probably learned during his time at Hill & Knowlton, the truth will always out.

Elisabeth Field is managing director at Eulogy. She tweets @lisfield

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