An email arrives in a journalist’s inbox from an enthusiastic PR professional.
“Hello!! Hope you are enjoying the sunny weath-”
Click. The email is deleted.
It’s a scenario wearyingly familiar to every PR exec who has tried, in good faith, to communicate with reporters convinced they are firing despatches from the front line when they are only covering the launch of a new hotel spa.
Is there any way the twain can meet?
Nigel Cooper, chairman of event agency Zibrant, says using a PR agency can be beneficial if you are specific about what you want it to do.
He said: “We don’t spend a lot of money on PR – a lot less than people think, I imagine. It is a business development tool. We don’t use it to promote personalities, like some do. It’s a way of raising the profile of the company. It helps if a client has heard of you when you phone them. Also, if you want to do more than just respond to a journalist’s questions, if you want to develop a campaign, you don’t do it yourself. It’s better to use the experts.”
When Mash Media, publisher of Conference News, bought the International Confex trade show form UBM Live, it knew it had an uphill battle to convince a hostile media that the show had a future.
Event director Liz Agostini said she relied on the expertise and experience of Davies Tanner.
She said: “Our partnership with Davies Tanner has been a key element in reinstating International Confex as the UK show for the MICE industry. Their understanding of, and relationships with, the key industry stakeholders at venue, destination and parliamentary level have been invaluable in fulfilling the role of ensuring that there is always a constructive two-way flow of information and real engagement between International Confex and the UK meetings and events industry.”
Alistair Turner, PR director at Davies Tanner, admits that his firm faced a stiff task.
He said: “Confex had got a bad reputation. When the sale was announced, I waited for the dust to settle and then spoke with Mash Media about turning it around. I think we have turned hostility into open minds.”
Turner said that, in general, clients need to be clear about the difference between PR and media relations.
He said: “PR is about managing the client’s reputation. Media relations is broader. I can talk to my audience through trade shows and through social media.
The world of PR is changing massively – people are trusting brands more than they trust journalists.”
His view is underlined by Caraline Brown, the managing director of Midnight Communications.
She said: “The balance of power in the media world is definitely changing. In the past journalists often thought of PR as a second-rate industry – I remember hearing plenty of reporters tell colleagues they are ‘selling out’ by leaving journalism to work on the dark side. But the truth is these days journalists need PR more than ever. Publishers employ fewer and fewer journalists to write more and more words – on the internet a page is never full, there is always room for more.
“Conversely, the way that trends are moving at the moment, content is becoming king in PR. With so much noise and competition online, clients want quality editorial to make them stand out and to improve their SEO. So the irony now is that some of the country’s best writers are not working on newspapers, they are working in PR agencies.
“Of course the most creative and expansive minds have always been on this side of the fence, too – which is why PR picked up on the technological revolution long before most other industries. The dark side is a rather good place to be right now.”
PR may be a good place to be for people who want to earn money but it is not a good place for people who are interested in telling readers the truth about important things
This is not a view that finds favour with Nick Davies, Guardian journalist and author of a damning examination of the often-cosy relationship between journalism and PR, Flat Earth News.
He told CN: “PR may be a good place to be for people who want to earn money but it is not a good place for people who are interested in telling readers the truth about important things. And, in the same way, the growing activity of PR is not a good thing for readers who want to find out about important things. The primary problem with PR is that it will select truths which serve the interests of the corporations or unions or political parties or celebs who pay for it. That is a very long way from being journalism. Indeed, the penetration of newsooms by this kind of PR is a fundamental threat to journalism. And the secondary problem with PR is that from time to time, some PR outlets are not content to select the truths which serve their masters – they go further and indulge in falsehood and distortion. Even worse for journalism.”
Adam Baggs, managing director at PR firm Soaring Worldwide, concurs in part with Davies’ withering assessment.
He said: “I don’t think it is an entirely unfair or inaccurate statement but I do think to use it to describe all PRs in all sectors would be a mistake. You could, for example, just as easily say that journalists only take a view that sits with the editorial guidelines and political opinions of their proprietors.
“The use of the word ‘truths’ suggests hidden agendas, smoke and mirrors and a host of other over-used terms that are only applicable in certain types of PR. In the meetings industry for example it is rare that the PR of an agency, venue or destination is trying to hide something. It is far more likely that they are working with their client and the press to provide content of genuine interest and value to the reader.
“The PR’s role is that of a conduit, working with their client to identify and provide stories and comment from a reputable and relevant source that suits the needs of the publication. Quality investigative journalism exists to ferret out the details of a story and ensure a balanced final article – just as publications rarely criticise big advertisers – see recent national press stories around HSBC as an example – a PR is always going to put their client in the best possible light – but the vital part of that positioning is only putting them forward at an appropriate time.
“A PR however, shouldn’t just be focusing on the media. Press relations work is just one part of a PR campaign, which should encompass a full public relations mix. A PR’s network and subsequent campaign should go beyond the media to include industry influencers and leaders, while their ability to gather industry intelligence and contextualise it for the benefit of clients is also vital. It isn’t just about the stories we tell to the public but also the information we gather and feedback, allowing our clients to react to the world around them.”
‘A good PR won’t act as a gatekeeper’
Jill Hawkins, director of Aniseed PR, said: “A good PR won’t act as a gatekeeper between the client and journalist, they will act as a link – building a relationship that will be for the mutual benefit of both parties. It’s not about spinning truths and lying to journalists. I once handled the resignation of a very prominent industry figure. A leading editor uncovered the story weeks before we were ready to go public with it, but my relationship with the editor was so good that he agreed to hold the story back until we were ready – in return for getting the story as an exclusive. The deal benefited both parties but would not have been possible if I had not built that relationship up over 10 years of working with him.
“I agree that the PR will want to focus on the company’s positives – after all, it is the client who is paying the bill. But that said, I’ve always regarded the journalist as a client too and so their needs are just as important as the client’s. If pushed, then the journalist always comes first; I would rather lose a client than ruin a relationship with a journalist that I have spent years building up. I have walked away from clients who have consistently agreed to, and then ignored deadlines because it’s my reputation that they are tainting, and that impacts on both me and my other clients. The PR/ journalist relationship is one built on trust and mutual respect and that is not easily earned.”
Finally, Kursha Woodgate, managing director at Mexia Communications, sums up: “The role of PR has evolved significantly since I first made the move from being a trade journalist to the ‘other side’. When I first started out in journalism some 20 years ago, my editor did not have a good view of PR people and would avoid them if possible – but a lot has changed since then. Perhaps because of my editorial roots, I have always seen the role of a good PR as more of a broker, effectively acting in the interests of the media as well as our clients. I think it’s important to take a fairly practical view from an editorial perspective. If a story is not something that would interest the readers of a publication we send it to, then we are wasting time for the journalist and the client.”