UK: MASSAGING THE MESSAGE? - Should only selected staff be allowed to talk to the press?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Should only selected staff be allowed to talk to the press?

Managements everywhere these days recognise that good communications are good for business. All right, but who should be authorised to do the talking with the media, and about what? There's a potentially tricky balance to strike between open access on the one hand and the need to ensure that information is accurate and the corporate message consistent on the other.

The investment bank SBC Warburg comes down heavily on the side of managing the message. 'Our policy is necessarily restrictive,' says corporate communications director Kerry Underhill. 'Like all investment houses we are often dealing with sensitive and complex information, and we need to be careful that the messages conveyed externally are accurate.' For that reason, unauthorised comment to the media is a firing offence at Warburg's. Only about one in 10 of the bank's executives is authorised to act as a spokesperson. Spokespeople are further divided into layers according to what they can talk about: the chief executive and his board level colleagues can talk about their own areas of responsibility; and certain specialists, including analysts, are authorised to comment on specific sectors or transactions. Staff are required to refer any calls from outside their sphere of reference to the press office.

Despite these strict rules, however, SBC Warburg will quickly field spokespeople to answer questions on practically any subject on which the bank has expertise. Underhill believes that tight management of this kind ultimately benefits the media. 'Journalist get frustrated speaking to the wrong people,' he says. Our approach makes sure they get the information they need, as quickly as possible.' Imperial Chemical Industries by contrast finds that a looser approach is needed to communicate effectively about its widely diversified operations. The company has no set policies on media relations, nor is any prior authorisation required to speak to the press. 'Who will speak depends enormously on the type of question and what kind of relationship may already exist with the journalist,' says chief press officer John Edgar. The press office acts mainly as a 'switchboard' routing inquiries. Trade publications will usually go directly to executives they know for comment. ICI does have one media guideline though: questions affecting the share price, or those concerning corporate policy, should normally be handled at board level.

Chris Lever, director of corporate communications at Sainsbury, finds that he is often required to deflect press requests away from top executives and toward other managers who can answer equally well. 'We get journalists who don't always understand why the chairman cannot give a two-hour interview on a technical subject,' he says. But while pushing interviews down and across the organisation, Sainsbury keeps its media relations firmly under control. Whether it's a board member or a check-out clerk who is to be interviewed, Lever or his staff will normally select the interviewee, brief and rehearse him or her for the meeting, then sit in on the interview to ensure that it does not wander beyond the agreed subject areas, and to fill in further information if required.

At Gardner Merchant, all media requests are routed initially to corporate affairs director Bob Cotton, who is equally intent on consistency and co-ordination. Cotton believes that too much control can be counterproductive, and will rarely sit in on the interview. 'It takes two to tango, and too much control makes an interview so uninteresting that a journalist won't find it worthwhile,' says Cotton. The more technical the subject, the more likely it is that the interviewee will be found well down the organisational chart. As Cotton says, 'If the question is how to make a fluffy omelette, you've got to field an expert fluffy omelette maker. If once in a while someone says something inappropriate, you just have to accept that as part of the process.' Partnerships such as law and accountancy firms and management consultants pose particular communications headaches since partners generally regard themselves as equally entitled to speak to the media - regardless of whether they have prepared the subject or whether they are effective as spokespeople. In those organisations it is usually counterproductive to try to enforce rigid rules on media contact. Trish Evans, a communications manager with Andersen Consulting worldwide, finds that the most effective approach is by example. 'Once partners see that they get their messages across more effectively when they work with a communications professional, they begin to ask for our help instead of resisting it. You have to lead from behind in a sense.'.

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