George Pitcher: PR lesson number one – qui s’excuse, s’accuse

Former Marconi deputy chief executive John Mayo’s three-part exposé on the company’s downfall has served only to sully his own reputation, says George Pitcher

You will all be familiar with the principle that it is better to have someone inside the tent relieving themselves outwards, rather than standing outside relieving themselves into the tent. You may also know the countryside expression that it’s better to hunt from cover.

If the somewhat reduced telecommunications conglomerate Marconi has cause to rue the day that its former deputy chief executive and finance director, John Mayo, left its tent, then Mayo himself may one day wish that he’d sought to bring down his quarry from the relative comfort of a discreet hiding place.

Whatever the nature of the mess in Marconi’s tent and the degree to which Mayo has contributed to it, it is hard to think of a more ignoble contrast to the heroic exit of Captain Oates than Mayo has managed: “I’m just going outside, but I may be back to bang on about it in the Financial Times for some time.”

It’s not so much that the FT gave Mayo enough rope to hang himself with last weekend – a three-part series, for goodness sake – as gave him a revolver with which to shoot his feet off. And gave him three shots.

One can picture the scene as Mayo and his advisers were welcomed at the FT, where he would solicitously be told that by far the best thing to do would be to point the weapon at his own foot and how much it would hurt his former colleagues when he pulled the trigger.

Why didn’t anyone tell him not to do this? It is a truth universally acknowledged that, having been “ousted” from any position that operates within consensus management, you hold your tongue.

This is not for any reasons of honour or integrity – far less because the interests of the corporate body outweigh those of the individual – but for the far more practical reason that if you lead off about your innocence in a collective strategy that turned out to be wrong, you’ll look at best like a weak revisionist and, more probably, like a whingeing prat.

At a pragmatic level – and this is a further application of the hunting metaphor of my introduction – you are unlikely to track down a fresh, senior management position if headhunters and prospective employers and shareholders have you down as the sort who will lead off against his former colleagues in a national newspaper if and when you’re busted.

Marconi has shrunk from being a &£30bn combine to being worth less than &£1bn, labouring under profits warnings and a &£3.5bn debt burden. Mayo “breaks his silence” (did anyone know or care that he was silent in the first place?) to inform us that he shares “responsibility for the evolution of the company”.

With that clear, he then proceeds to blame everyone else for the crisis at Marconi, from poor old Lord Weinstock, who built up Marconi’s predecessor GEC, to the rest of the Marconi board, especially unnamed non-executive directors. All of whom have wisely kept their counsel.

All the while, of course, Mayo’s own brilliant initiatives were being frustrated at every turn. Clearly, Mayo was a cut above his pedestrian colleagues. At one point, he gives them the benefit of his wisdom in a Sussex hotel: “I explained that markets occasionally produced bubbles – the tulip-bulb bubble, the South Sea bubble and the dot-com/communications bubble”.

He misses out how the markets produced bubble-bath, bubble-gum and bubble-cars, but I expect the likes of chief executive Lord Simpson got his drift. How they must have marveled at his incisive grasp of finance and economics.

It was these skills that led Mayo to realise that, when Marconi enjoyed a very full valuation, it should probably be looking for some corporate action in the mergers and acquisitions (M&A) markets.

Having solemnly informed us that “timing is crucial in M&A matters”, Mayo writes that he “recommended a ‘Superbowl 2’ transaction – I wanted us to negotiate with prospective partners simultaneously.” Some of us with less experience of the M&A markets and American football might, of course, be tempted to call that “an auction”.

But it is in his treatment of the non-executive directors that Mayo is most revealing of himself. When Mayo reschedules Marconi’s debt to the lenders, he is mystified as to why a non-exec should want covenants to be given.

The answer might be that they engender management discipline in the interests of shareholders. But Mayo doesn’t see that.

He describes Marconi’s refusal to strike his deal as its “biggest mistake”. Then he adds: “That was when I should have resigned.” For once, he and his former colleagues must be in agreement.

So why did he agree to publish? Mayo conceded on Monday, somewhat belatedly, that he shares collective responsibility with the directors of GEC and Marconi. He then says that he is “truly sorry” to shareholders and employees.

So far, so contrite. Then comes the CV: “My career spans 24 yearsI learnt a lot in the process. It is time for a new chapter and I hope it is as challenging as the others have been.” Shareholders in British industry may justifiably be less hopeful about Mayo’s next chapter.

The FT has published a three-part apologia, concluding with a job application. The former is weak, so Mayo shouldn’t hold his breath in anticipation of replies to the latter.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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