The FT article on Monday by Emma Jacobs 'Publicity is free with no PRs' about the value or otherwise that PR professionals bring to their clients, was an entertaining read. But whether it painted an accurate picture of the usefulness of PR and communications, or even reflected a widely held opinion, is a different matter.
There have always been quirky mavericks (often self-styled) who have had a natural gift for media relations. Richard Branson is often cited as an example; and perhaps Jon Moulton, Elon Musk and Jonathan Straight fall into the same category. For entrepreneurs whose businesses are inextricably linked with their own 'brand' this is a sensible and often highly effective approach. Most companies, however, are not driven by a single personality. And as Jonathan Straight suggests at the end of the article, eventually even entrepreneurial businesses have to grow up. The organisation becomes bigger than the individual. And at that point - in fact, probably a long time before - a professional approach to brand-positioning and wider communications is required.
So dispensing entirely with proper PR advice is not wise. But is there more in the allegation that PR advisors often advocate a risk-free approach when it comes to talking about an organisation? There can be little doubt that CEOs are often taught by their PR 'minders' to avoid difficult questions - from the media, from political stakeholders, from analysts, and so on. However, to argue that this is the fault of the comms professional puts the cart before the horse.
If the media insists on seizing on every word looking for weakness, if politicians prefer to witch hunt than genuinely investigate and understand the world around them, and if analysts and the investors who sit behind them continue to take a short-term view, then yes, it is absolutely the right advice to be bland and to pursue the line of least resistance. For corporate leaders to be permitted to speak honestly and colourfully requires a lot more than a change of PR adviser. It needs a seismic shift in the way public discourse is conducted in this country and around the world.
That said, a decent agency should always provide frank and fearless advice. Measured, sensible and weighed up yes; but always challenging to the status quo. An effective agency should also be professional. If, as the article describes, a client finds that the senior team disappears after the pitch to be replaced by a 'child' then he or she should change their advisors. And if any agency ever suggests that a company should not put forward the right expert with engaging, specialist, knowledge, they too should be fired. These are hygiene factors. I am seriously surprised they are still being discussed in this article.
So the answer to the claim in the headline of the article is that yes, publicity can be free without a PR. But it may well not be the right kind of publicity. Just because something is free doesn't mean it is without cost.