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Over use of passive aggression in PR by Hewlett Packard?

Lucy Kellaway at the FT has taken umbrage with a PR person’s passive aggression. After reading the article she wrote in response, what’s curious is that it sounds like she’d rather someone got ‘a bit shouty’ with her instead.

Grrr.

Here at PR Agency One, we have been discussing the story all morning and if you have missed it, you can read the full interview here.

So what happened? Did someone die, or does a reputation lie in tatters? Have the lawyers been called? Are heads about to roll? The answer is ‘no’, and in fact, it seems a bit like a case of what we’d call  ‘handbags at dawn.’

Henry Gomez, head of marketing and communications at Hewlett Packard Enterprise, contacted Lucy Kellaway to express his ‘disappointment’ at the tone of a recent interview with Meg Whitman, HP’s CEO.

His response was unfortunately a bit passive aggressive and arguably unnecessary, but this kind of feedback is something that PR people are rightly or wrongly often asked to deliver.  Personally, I thought journalists would be a bit more thick skinned than this?  (EDIT: And, to boot, HP are denying that this conversation took place in today’s PR Week)

I dread to think what might happen if someone gave it to Lucy Kellaway with both barrels (I’d rather not) and my sympathies are with Hewlett Packard’s head of marketing, whose private correspondence is now in the public domain.

Now Rory Cellan-Jones and pretty much half of Twitter is involved, the internet is ablaze with gossip and everyone is racing to get the popcorn…

And for the record, here is Lucy’s fiery response to Henry:

Dear Henry,

I want to apologise for the disingenuousness of my last email. I don’t thank you for your message, which I found — to borrow your word — disappointing.

You say the FT management should think about “unacceptable biases” and its relationship with its advertisers. My piece was not biased and I fear you misunderstand our business model. It is my editors’ steadfast refusal to consider the impact of stories on advertisers that makes us the decent newspaper we are. It is why I want to go on working here. It is why the FT goes on paying me.

Secondly, you seem to think your boss must be right because she runs a big company and knows about restructuring. In my experience people in big jobs occasionally say things that are a bit off. Then not only is it my job as a columnist to point it out, but yours too, as a member of her top team.

Three, I see you are in charge of both marketing and communications. The latter role means you have to help your company look good in the eyes of the media and the world. Your email fails to do that.

And most troubling of all, as head of marketing, you are likely to have an interest in ensuring that the company’s advertising message reaches the right audience. Assuming the decision to advertise in the FT was right in the first place, it would seem crazy — and not in shareholders’ best interests — to change course based on pique.

It is, of course, possible that you aren’t to blame for any of this, and the order came from on high. I want to think well of Ms Whitman. I adore eBay, which she made great. She may have said something daft at Davos — and, as I pointed out in my column, she was in very good company there — so I don’t want to believe she told you to write to me. Please tell me it isn’t so.

Best wishes

Lucy

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James Crawford is the managing director of B2B and Consumer specialist PR Agency One. He specialises in SEO PR and using media relations to improve the visibility of websites.