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.

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9 thoughts on “Advisers, commercial interests & press integrity

  • Great post!

    I’ve been to award ceremonies where it’s felt like an industry love in!

    Everyone (and I mean providers not advisers) seems to get an award and the awards being dished out didn’t really reflect the service I’d received from certain firms who had won (although we are only one firm with that narrow experience)

    There’s a certain kudos to winning awards (which is the reason we enter some but are really selective when we do) but, and maybe I’m naïve, I’d rather my business wins on merit and content as opposed to any commercial relationship.

    Then it means more to me, my team and our clients. Also, we can genuinely talk about how we won as opposed to doing this knowing that we’ve paid for it!

    That for me is enough.

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    • Thanks, Chris. I suspect there is a big difference between adviser awards and provider awards, even where they are being handed out at the same event. Publishers are probably aware that adviser firms do not, typically, have the same marketing budgets are large provider firms, and probably have a little more integrity when it comes to the unproven link between sponsorship and winning! The awards I have attended over the past few years tend to be accompanied by groans as headline sponsors, or those who have bought the most tables, win yet another prize in a category which seems bizarre from a customer standpoint.

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      • Evidenced much the same Martin at the last one I attended. My enthusiasm for entering waned and is yet to return.

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    • Thanks, Mark. And thank you for the link! Your Google skills are clearly much better than mine…

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  • Great piece Martin – you may have seen my mini rant on Twitter earlier this week on this area.

    I was approached by a well known trade mag and asked to give them between £3.5k to £25k (yes, you did read the last number correctly) to sponsor the voting site for their service awards. They actually suggested that this would improve our rating.

    The most disturbing parts for me are:
    1) They think advisers are swayed by this – i.e. see a logo at the point they vote and all the frustrations of poor service are forgiven
    2) They think this sort of behaviour sits well with the FCAs desire to ensure a level playing field and remove conflicts and ‘backhanders’ to influence trade

    There’s been several articles on whether the FCAs reach should extend to supporting elements of the industry. I don’t think this is sensible or practical, but they do need to play their part and stop trying to undermine the parts that are now starting to work well.

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    • Thanks, Stephen. I remember your mini-rant – shocking to hear my assumption it was a ‘five figure’ sponsorship deal held true!

      Perhaps the FCA does need to extend its work on inducements to the relationships in retail financial services between providers, PR firms and the press? For as long as the press remains outside of financial services regulation, I suspect this would be a tough one to enforce, unless responsibility fell squarely on the shoulders of regulated firms such as providers.

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  • No one cares who has won what. Navel gazing advisers may get a kick from being awarded “2014’s Most ISO 2329912 Compliant Adviser In The WD Postcode Under A Full Moon”. Nobody else gives a damn.

    So do not go to these events! Problem solved. IF you HAVE to be seen to go then pony up for the (not-so-free) meal and hotel room. No sponsorship conflicts. End of.

    I used to go to these events solely for the chance to catch up with peers over a drink or two. Then I realised you do not need to endure an award ceremony to get this interaction! Pubs are open all day and are most keen to take your business…

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    • Thanks for your comment, Nick. Like all things marketing (awards, PR mentions, qualifications, etc) they are worth what you make them worth. We’ve had a lot of value from the awards we have won over the years, in terms of presenting the right image to new and existing clients. Certainly those clients who found us by Googling ‘award winning IFA’ give a damn 🙂

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