What a load of one-sided nonsense from Emma Jacobs in last week’s FT – ‘Publicity is free with no PRs’.

You’d think the FT would do better.

The thrust of the article is that companies don’t need professional communications advice: bosses can talk to the outside world themselves. Jacobs cites companies which she says think and do just that, but her points stand up to scrutiny poorly. Nor does she attempt to address the flip side of the issue, or mention the millions of companies who do otherwise.

In fairness, where she suggests incompetent PR people are a waste of space, I couldn’t agree more. And where she quotes a business leader saying ‘impressive’ PR agency directors win pitches, only to hand the work to untrained juniors – unfortunately, in big agencies, that sometimes happens.

Flimsy

Beyond this, her argument is so flimsy, it’s hard to know where to begin …

Jacobs says Warren Buffett ‘spurns’ PR support – presumably with the implication that if the renowned billionaire does it, it must be right.

I was struck by this revelation and intrigued to find out how Buffett manages to handle all his media, shareholder and public enquiries himself.

But wait … Firstly, Jacobs says he has a colleague who does all this for him. So, no matter what her job title may be, Buffett is using a communications intermediary.

Secondly, Buffett’s company, Berkshire Hathaway, is an investment vehicle. Most of the businesses it owns – including Mars, Heinz and Coca Cola – have extensive PR operations.

Thirdly, Jacobs says Buffett communicates directly with his shareholders in an annual meeting and yearly letter. Once a year may be enough for world-famous Warren and the media will flock to talk to him; most of us have to work a bit harder at it.

The article goes on to talk about ‘Silicon Valley billionaire Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla Motors, who opts to do his own public relations.’ How puzzling, then, to see Tesla’s web site inviting us to contact its press and investor relations officers.

Jacobs mentions ‘British private equity veteran’ Jon Moulton who ‘prefers to deal with journalists directly’ because he’s discovered “you don’t get into trouble with the press if you’re open and honest.”

So her implied choice seems to be: deal directly and truthfully, or appoint PR advisors who’ll hide stuff and lie.

I’m sure some PR people are liars, just as there are dishonest people in every line of work. But I’ve more often encountered business leaders who’ve been tempted to hide or bend the truth and been talked out of it by their communications advisors.

Jacobs then quotes Moulton saying “‘Invisible’, ‘avoiding’ and ‘secretive’ are not good words to be associated with. It implies you’re up to no good.”

… and then, bizarrely: “Very often, the most effective way of dealing with controversy is to do [and, presumably, say] nothing.”  What’s that if not invisible, avoiding and secretive?

Perhaps if Mouton invested in good communications advice, he’d be less confused in his approach – and have thought his comments through more clearly before being interviewed by the FT.

Jacobs quotes an anonymous comms director who bemoans his PR consultants who ‘do little apart from “add corporate-speak” [and] drum into executives the notion that they must espouse “an anodyne, flat, colourless message”’.

Why on earth does he put up with such useless people?

The situation should be exactly the other way around. The right communications advisor will work hard to obliterate the gobbledygook of which company executives are so fond and help them upgrade tedious waffle for interesting, relevant, enlightening discussion.

Reputational cost

Finally, on top of the fact most of its points are so flaky, the FT fails to look at the myriad problems when executives try to go it alone.

I won’t go into them here.

But I do know from long experience that most company directors are best at running their businesses.  If they were also left to handle their corporate communications unaided, most would do it badly. Or not at all.

And they’d learn that following Jacobs’ approach is not at all ‘free’, but comes at a high reputational cost.

 

What do you think? Do companies need good communications advice, or is the FT right that they can do their own PR for free?