Bring back the City press conference to prevent another Rock

Public relations
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The Independent Online

Around 20 years ago, a major shift occurred in how the financial press secured interviews from the senior executives who run our publicly owned companies. Press conferences were phased out in favour of more polite one-on-one briefings between journalists and chief executives.

If you are tempted to say "so what?" cast your mind back to last September when the global banking system came close to meltdown. Despite the collapse of some of the world's biggest financial institutions, as the UK lifts out of recession and the big deals return, City greed could again hold sway over the nation's best interest. What might have appeared to be a small change in City media practices was in fact the start of a fault line in which the financial press lost their ability to question company executives. The demise of the press conference was instigated by the leading City PR agencies, eager to secure better headlines for their clients.

They promised City journalists more time to ask personal questions and drill down deeper into the story behind the headline figures. But an interpretation nearer the truth is that the spin doctors knew that by briefing reporters in turn, they could neutralise a press corps that hunts best in packs.

At important press conferences, reporters usually heavily outnumber company executives. Surrounded by fellow hacks, journalists are emboldened to ask tougher questions that natural embarrassment or politeness can rule out. When meeting companies alone, challenging questioning becomes polite eyebrow raising.

At press conferences companies are unlikely to be able to hoodwink a roomful of reporters. What one journalist might miss, 15 or so are unlikely to, providing the opportunity for further questioning in the name of transparency and accountability.

Think how differently the media might have covered the Northern Rock crisis, the first bank to fail in the credit crunch, if they had had the opportunity to grill chief executive Adam Applegarth at a press conference?

One sharp journalist would have asked the killer question and found out that the Rock was finding it hard to borrow from the money markets. Others would have piled in and the next day's papers would have revealed how the Rock was in deep trouble. The nation would have been alerted.

The company's headlines might have been negative, but the outcome positive, leaving the Financial Services Authority and the Bank of England more time to consider solutions. The FSA should put a marker down and back the return of FTSE 100 company press conferences. It's in all our interests.

The author formerly worked as a City PR for Brunswick and Financial Dynamics, and now works for the news website