More sunlight on the dark arts

In a previous StopPress piece I outlined How to Counter ‘The Pit Strategy’.

The point of the post was to give sunlight to a side of PR that many fear to tread, but more importantly, how to counter the tactics. Some asked if there was a way to spot or counter these sorts of strategies. The short answer is yes. 

Time for more sunlight on tactics.

One trick of the trade is to use the Official Information Act (OIA) to create an issue which then grows into a problem for someone else. What begins as a simple, relatively innocuous request for information, suddenly has the potential to turn into a problem for say X company, if not managed well.

Here’s how it works.

An OIA is lodged with some regulatory agency tasked with the enforcement for a sector. The OIA asks if they have heard, or are aware, of any concerns about X company, alongside requesting some other information. In most cases, the regulator hasn’t heard of anything. But a seed has been planted.

Now the agency being targeted has a choice. It could easily dismiss the request, but just to be on the safe side, the person responsible for the OIA request will usually have had to ask someone else within the agency if they have heard anything about X company, usually by email. That little seed has now grown roots.

While this is taking place, a week or two later, another OIA request is lodged, this time with a Minister’s office, or if someone wants to be cunning, with several Minister’s offices that have corresponding portfolio responsibilities. This request is worded slightly differently, but it has a strategic intent – that is to create more questions, chatter and email traffic.

It is highly likely the Minister, or their staff, won’t have a clue about a complaint about X company. But working on the basis that staff may wonder why someone would bother asking about X company unless there is an issue with X company, and perhaps they (or the Minister) should be aware of it.

If they’re covering their bases, staffers will make some enquiries, and fire off an email to some government department asking if they heard of anything and is there anything that they (or their Minister) should be aware of re X company. As they have received a similar request they to start to wonder if X company has a problem. The seed now has been given fertiliser.

If a Minister’s office starts making enquiries to a government agency, the Chief Executives of that agency usually get told, there’s the odd phone call and more emails are generated, all of which has the effect of creating certain perceptions about X company.

Meanwhile, media contacts get tipped off that they’ve heard that the Government is asking questions about X company, and questions from a journalist could be interesting.

If the journalist makes enquiries, it adds a new dimension to the noise, and yet more emails are generated about X company. 

In cases like this, it’s time to invoke the ‘best defence is a good offence’ adage.

For a company, it needs to be aware of what is being said about it and engaging in the regulatory and political environments and to build up reputational goodwill.

If companies don’t shape their environments, there’s a chance that someone else will.

  • Carrick Graham is managing director of GMS Management Limited.

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