HP vs FT: Battle of the “polite and gentlemanly” titans

Lorna Hughes

09 Feb 2016

In the blue corner, HP – elder statesman of the technology world and current home of tech darling, Meg Whitman (previously of eBay). In the red (or slightly pastel organgy/pink) corner, the FT – serious, respected home of unbiased journalism. Who would have thought that these two household names would come to blows in quite such a public way. It all started at Davos – where so many business grievances seem to – when Meg Whitman took part in a panel debate around ‘The Digital Transformation of Industries’ alongside other business leaders including Marc Benioff of Salesforce and Jean-Pascal Tricoire of Schneider Electric. Initially, all was going well. Whitman’s vast experience was clear – having grown eBay and now being in the midst of a turnaround project at HP, which includes splitting the tech giant in two. But listen carefully and there are some strange moments, or rather some pointless statements. Many of which unfortunately seemed to be coming from Whitman. Now, as a PR agency with plenty of experience in corporate comms and speech writing, we’re not adverse to a headline-suited statement or pithy one-liner. However, Davos is not the place for it. This is an event which is highly scrutinised because what business leaders say is heard by an audience of political and regulatory influencers who could potentially act – putting in place laws, regulation and other measures using the insight these business leaders are providing. Of course, they wouldn’t do this based purely on what they hear at Davos – but it could provide inspiration. So for Whitman to supplement her guidance with the likes of “Can I just say one more thing? You can always go faster than you think you can” was ill-advised. Lucy Kellaway, business columnist at the Financial Times agreed. She really, really agreed. Her column a couple of weekends ago - Boneheaded aphorisms from Davos’s windy summit - didn’t pull any punches. In it, she heavily criticised various Davos speakers including David Cameron and Marc Benioff for, as Kellaway put it, their “not just empty, but wrong” statements. Whitman was singled out – the lucky recipient of the photo to go alongside the piece. Among the satirical but pointed piece, Kellaway wrote, “I admire the Whitman aphorism for its simple syntax and nice short words. The only trouble with it is that it’s nonsense. Often in business you can’t go nearly as fast as you fondly think you can. When you try, you fall on your face — and Ms Whitman, of all people, should know that.” Ouch. Not a great day for the PR team eh? But what happened next will go down in PR folklore. A week or so later, Kellaway received a letter from Henry Gomez, head of marketing and communications at HP. We won’t go into what was included – you can read Kellaway’s column about it and her responding letter here. Yes, that’s right – rather than apologise to HP for writing the column (not sure why she should but perhaps this was what HP wanted?) – Kellaway detailed exactly what Gomez had said or, moreover, threatened. “FT management should consider the impact of unacceptable biases on its relationships with advertisers.” Oh dear. Why HP decided to send the letter is unclear. It was never going to end well! And what were the comms team (or dare we say the Board) hoping to achieve? Lucy Kellaway is a columnist – meaning she writes her opinion. As long as that opinion is legal, then it’s valid and no amount of corporate pressure will change her mind. Following Kellaway first piece, this was a bit embarrassing for HP but Whitman was by no means the only leader singled out for criticism. It was not a PR crisis at all. But perhaps the first rule of crisis comms should have been followed: when it comes to external comms, if there’s nothing positive to say and you’re not required to make a statement, don’t do it. Just take the hit and stay silent. This appears to be the approach taken by every other leader mentioned by Kellaway. And they are now forgotten. The story is now “Corporate giant threatens media institution for writing unbiased article”. Not ideal and, unfortunately, likely to be used in crisis comms training sessions for years to come… and not in a positive way! In the meantime, all in PR are watching with baited breath for HP’s next move… which we all pray is dignified silence. Update: HP responded - reminding the world, once again, that it is an advertiser and the FT should be careful what it writes... so not a dignified silence then... here's the public's response.