Wednesday, 4 February 2009

An unplanned romp in the snow

This column is the unexpected result of news management. It is also like one of those scenes from the TV news of children playing in the snow, though obviously a lot less fun.

To explain, I have time to write this only because I cancelled a meticulously planned trans-Pennine journey after seeing those red warning triangles plastered all over the weather forecast for Tuesday, predicting falls of another 40cm of snow. This turned out to have been more like a spot of rain.

Which counts as brilliant PR: the sort of outcome for which the Met Office has been striving ever since Michael Fish laughed off the idea of a hurricane in 1987. Now they forecast disaster with monotonous regularity, so that we can all be hugely relieved when it does not turn up.

One of the first things I learned on entering financial PR 25 years ago was that companies should never drop a bombshell of bad news. The answer was to soften the blow by leaking something truly appalling, so that the market would breathe a sigh of relief when the real announcement came through. Years of ever-tighter regulation are supposed to have stamped out this sort of malpractice. Yet how often do you hear an early morning news story about massive losses and redundancies followed by the surprising punch line that the share price of the company concerned has gone up?

The other stock advice was that if you simply had to have a bad news announcement, make it a big one. Think of everything that could go wrong and chuck it in now, because investors hate nothing more than recurrent profit warnings (the rule of thumb for CEOs being “three strikes and you’re out”).

Ever since the advent of New Labour the British Government has been obsessed with PR: burying bad news or, if that is impossible, leaking something so toe-curlingly awful that the real story will play reasonably well. Every time I read another gloomy piece about the horrors of the deepening recession, I cling to the slender hope that it is all part of the game, and that the reality will turn out to be no worse than a snowball on the neck during an impromptu day out of the classroom.

Keith Hann is a financial PR consultant and late convert to optimism.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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