When to tell the unvarnished truth

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The Independent Online
The public relations technique of King Charles I left much to be desired, at least in his lifetime, culminating in the loss of his head on 30 January 1649 - symbolically in Whitehall. His posthumous PR has been much better - declared a Martyr after the Restoration and accorded a Saint's Day.

Cromwell, on the other hand, managed his PR well until his ill-fated Irish initiatives during the interregnum. Since then history has been merciless in its condemnation.

Public relations matter, as Prince Charles knows. The fact that popular sentiment, following last week's television documentary, is overwhelmingly positive in spite of media attempts to paint the contrary view demonstrates that truth is sometimes more potent than a professionally glossed image: what is heard counts, not what is said. PR is, above all, a question of getting the sequence of message, market and media right.

When a US president must exhort his public to 'read my lips - no new taxes', it shows how far professionally managed media gloss has got in the way of effective communication. Was he signalling that, just for this once, he could be believed?

The dilemma is a real one - when to tell the unvarnished truth and when to sanitise it? That Perrier appeared to know about benzine contamination for some time before the balloon went up had a catastrophic effect on sales when this emerged. An accident is forgivable - just. A cover-up is not. The confection of half-truths and understatement that surrounded the pollution of the water system at Camelford in Cornwall, albeit driven by fear of possible litigation, set the water industry back a long way in terms of public confidence.

Lautro, the life and pensions industry regulator, is, I believe, doing fundamental damage to the sector through its insistence on public humiliation of those companies whose advice to clients may not be 'best advice' - demanding the retraining of sales forces and the payment of large fines.

Not that I object to best advice principles or the need for the life companies to be scrupulous in their training and management of sales professionals. What I see as needlessly destructive is the undermining of public confidence in vital brand values that have been developed over decades, if not centuries.

Most of the leading players in financial services have been around for generations practising conservative financial management, building confidence as well as sustainable value for investors and policy-holders alike. This long- term brand development has taken vast resources of time, money and skill. These brand values, upon which the confidence of the market depends, are fragile. Punishing one player damages them all. Punishing many sets the industry back by an order of magnitude.

This would be serious enough even if Britain was adequately insured for life and pension provision. But the UK is badly under- insured, the government is in long-term crisis over the funding of state pensions, and only the commercial insurers have the resources to do anything about it. Part of that resource is public confidence. I hope the emergent new regulator, the PIA, will be more subtle in its regulatory role, working with the industry in the interest of the market it serves.

Brand confidence is too little understood. Brands are earned, not created; it is consumer perception that counts, not images claimed. This is as true of politics as of commerce: the last general election was won and lost on perceptions of Labour's taxation intentions.

The second point about managing brand integrity is that the long game is the priority. Most leading brands are analogous to a supertanker going through the Panama Canal: only forward momentum is gently variable, not the overall direction. Brands are changed by subtle stages, if only because they represent the cumulative repository of public perceptions and experience over time. The decision to buy this marque of car rather than another is likely to have been born years earlier.

Children's identification with the safety aspects of a marque's advertising is built on concern for the well-being of their parents as drivers. To change the brand value from safety to sporting, for example, may well prove risky. The art is to retain the core values of safety while demonstrating how they underpin the marque's approach to increased performance.

Third, corporate chief executives are required to deliver sustainable growth in shareholder value. They do so by playing single-mindedly to the core strengths of the organisation. Above all, they know the core strengths and continuously invest in developing them. One of those will almost always be the brand values as perceived by the market. Prince Charles has signalled his intention to shift monarchical brand values a point or two. If public response is anything to go by, he has managed his PR well. Corporate leaders take note.

The author is marketing director at Sundridge Park Management Centre

(Photograph omitted)