Practise what you preach

Drumroll please…….the award for ‘PR backlash of the week’ goes to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

In case you missed his intervention, the Archbishop waded in to one of the most controversial issues of the day – the payday loan company.

Vowing to put them out of business, Welby announced in an interview with Total Politics that the Church of England would work with the network of credit unions to offer a cheaper alternative for those seeking some extra cash. Encouragingly, he wasn’t calling for more state intervention and an outright ban on the likes of Wonga, which operates legally and with transparency, but instead for more competition to achieve his goal.

This is a man who had a successful career in business and was a member of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, so he should know a thing or two about market forces.

But surely someone of such wisdom didn’t think that the payday loan end of the ever powerful financial services sector would simply roll over and watch someone else pull their shutters down. Companies like Wonga do not take kindly to threats to put them out of business, and by extension, their staff out of a job. While Welby may have a point about access to finance, his language was misguided.

Wonga’s response was characteristically clever. Their ten commitments defused the issue somewhat, but far more damaging for the Church of England is the revelation that it had itself invested millions of pounds in Accel Partners, the U.S. venture capital company that led to the launch of Wonga – King of the £2bn payday lending market in the UK. Embarrassing? You bet.

The C of E broke a major rule of any public affairs campaign, and from that moment it didn’t have a prayer. Surely someone close to Welby thought that perhaps they should check their own financial investments before handling out a sermon on a high profile part of the industry?

Had they knocked on Admiral’s door, or that of any credible London PR agency, they would have been advised to make sure that Lambeth Palace had never funded a payday lender. Alas, it seems no one bothered to check and that has left Welby open to the charge of hypocrisy. It has also moved the focus away from the payday loan companies for now.

It reminds us of one of the most important rules in PR. Look before you leap.

Amen to that.