Advisers, commercial interests & press integrity

One of my favourite things about Twitter is watching attempts at PR blow up. It’s almost as if hapless PRs sit around their big meeting room tables and brainstorm to find the most retarded campaign ideas possible.

Last year my personal favourite was the #askBG Q&A session, which saw the British Gas customer service director fed to the lions on the same day they announced an unpopular 10% price hike for customers.

This resulted in some hilarious tweets, including people asking the energy giant whether they have discovered a way to convert angry customer feedback into electricity. One can only assume they had.

As I type this, the hashtag #PricelessSurprises is trending, helped along by the foolish decision by the PR agency representing Mastercard asking journalists to guarantee coverage in return for their ticket to attend teeny-pop non-event The Brit Awards tonight.

Tim Walker of The Telegraph had the integrity to forward the email he received from House PR (along with its suggested tweets for pre-, during and post-event) to Press Gazette. Instead of #PricelessSurprises becoming a neatly orchestrated PR win for Barclaycard, it turned into the focus for jokes, anger and criticism of the attack on press standards.

What does all of this have to do with financial services?

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the relationship between retail financial services and the press.

As an established Media IFA, I speak to journalists over 300 times a year, providing them with commentary and analysis for their stories. I’m on the receiving end of multiple press releases each day, designed no doubt to keep me up to date with the latest developments and on-side with my messages.

None of us should assume that the press and relationships with it, as advisers or providers, are a benign or altruistic cuddly kitten. Like any business, the press is in it for the money. Commercial vested interests are at every turn, some more obvious than others.

We understand that provider sponsorship is a necessary evil to fund the salaries of trade press journalists and the publication of these publications. Ethics and integrity on the part of the vast majority of journalists ensure impartiality and the avoidance of thinly veiled advertorials, most of the time.

It gets a little trickier when it comes to the more commercial side of the trade press, namely awards.

Years ago a national newspaper (I think it was The Observer) ran an excellent story about the ‘scandal’ of awards in financial services. They highlighted many of the nefarious practices which exist, including sponsoring tables or paying for marketing packages in return for winning awards.

More recently we have seen PR agencies offering award entry services, designed to ‘boost’ chances of a win. I despise that approach and believe any award with a professionally written entry has lesser value than one won independently of help.

I wrote The Observer a letter at the time, which was published on the editor’s letters page, explaining that not all financial services awards are the same, and that many adviser firms make a conscious decision to only enter those which are impartial.

We get this. I’m sure that many advisers get this. I wonder how many consumers do.

Instead, no doubt many consumers see ‘five star service awards winner’ next to a provider name and automatically assume it was awarded solely on merit, with no five figure sponsorship figures changing hands to encourage adviser voting in the category.

We have entered a new age of transparency and professionalism in retail financial services, thanks to the RDR and a general shift in attitudes. How quickly this will extend to the periphery of our profession is an unknown quantity.

As long as journalists like Tim Walker and his many peers operate with complete integrity, that transition away from dubious and opaque commercial practices should be reasonably swift.