The Big Interview: Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Channel 4 News

The presenter of Channel 4 News says while Twitter has become a rapid response news tool, many PR professionals are not using it wisely. Cathy Bussey reports.

The Big Interview: Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Channel 4 News
The Big Interview: Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Channel 4 News

According to PeerIndex, Krishnan Guru-Murthy is the 19th most influential journalist on Twitter. Having experienced first-hand the extremely beneficial effects of a retweet from @krishgm, PRWeek can well believe this.

Unlike many senior journalists, Guru-Murthy was early to the social networking website and has actively embraced it, even auctioning off a 'follow' and a tour of the Channel 4 newsroom in this year's Twitter answer to Comic Relief, Twit Relief.

It makes sense, therefore, that Twitter features heavily during our chat in the Trio D'Or Cafe just around the corner from C4's studios on Gray's Inn Road. But when faced with Guru-Murthy's depth of knowledge and experience, it is a waste just to discuss the site. This is after all a journalist who has covered world events ranging from the death of Princess Diana to UK general elections, international conflicts and disasters.

Some journalists, accustomed to asking all the questions, make difficult interviewees. Guru-Murthy, 40, is not one of those. Dapper in a suit and goldfish-print tie, he is as polished as he is on-screen when asking the questions, and as charmingly polite to the star-struck cafe proprietor as to any politician, celebrity or CEO.

Here he gives his views on the ubiquitous Twitter, as well as crisis comms, journalists moving into PR, the political comms machine, Jay Hunt, diversity in the industry and much more.

- How did you get involved with Twitter?

I joined believing I would do it for a few months and see how it went. We are always looking for new ways to engage with viewers. Channel 4 News generally has a fiercely loyal audience who feel very much part of it, and feel that we are finding out what is going on together. Twitter is a direct way of doing that.

- How has your use of Twitter evolved?

I started off by saying 'I'm interviewing this person, what should I ask them?' or 'what should be the lead story on the bulletin?'. I still do that but I'm getting a lot more from Twitter now in terms of breaking news. Twitter can be as quick as the wires. Some news organisations are even starting to get rid of the wires altogether. We are not doing that yet, but we are getting a lot more information from Twitter.

- You must be inundated with pitches from PR professionals?

Actually, I don't think PRs really make use of Twitter as well as they should. Maybe I'm not following the right people, but I can't think of an example when I have been contacted by a PR person on Twitter about something I have then wanted to cover, which is probably very revealing.

- How do you think social media are changing the PR profession?

It is such a challenge for PR professionals because in many ways it is relinquishing control of the message or story. I would say if you are a control-freak PR, Twitter is a nightmare. But I do believe there are more people writing about the power of social media than actually using it.

- What makes a good PR professional in your view?

Those who understand what a story is and what I will need in order to deliver that story.

- And what makes a bad one?

The worst are those who say they are launching something and thought it would be a good story, without any understanding of what a story is.

- You have covered five general elections and interviewed the last four prime ministers, so it is fair to say you are very au fait with political comms ...

The issue in political PR is the people who think the way to be successful is to be like Alastair Campbell or Malcolm Tucker - bullying and aggressive, and trying to tell journalists what to think. There are some people working in corporate PR who behave like that. It always strikes me as bad PR when people are aggressive.

- How can someone protect their client and please a journalist at the same time?

When PR professionals say we can't do an interview and give a reason, I understand their position. They may then give an off-the-record briefing or some form of explanation - that's the way to deal with us when we are chasing. But the thing I come up against a lot, which is a PR mistake, is people who think the best policy is to disappear, not do interviews and not to comment. If you do not address people's concerns, then those concerns tend to grow.

- Can you give an example?

Until recently, those in the nuclear industry were nowhere to be seen. They had obviously decided to keep their heads down and wait to see what happens in Japan. Meanwhile, there was a huge debate going on about the future of nuclear energy around the world. That was a massive PR challenge. (Since this interview was carried out, Guru-Murthy has contacted PRWeek pointing out that energy companies are beginning to join the debate.)

- Would you ever consider going into PR?

If I end up in PR any time soon, it would be because I have screwed up my career as a TV news anchor.

- Your good friend and former Newsnight colleague Peter Barron moved into PR at Google - how did you feel about that?

Lots of people found it surprising at the time, but he was excited about moving into a big growth area. The big challenge will be to see if you can cross into PR and then return, because it is assumed if you go into PR, you can't come back to journalism.

- Do you think it's possible?

Peter would be a good example of somebody who could very easily come back into broadcasting - his integrity would be unimpeachable. Craig Oliver (Downing Street's new director of comms), for example, would not be able to come back and edit a national news programme very easily without a lot of people questioning whether or not he is biased. But I don't see why he couldn't do something else in TV that did not involve him taking charge of political coverage.

- Were you surprised by Oliver's move?

It was a huge surprise because people from broadcast do not tend to do the political spin doctor role - they have traditionally been newspaper people. And clearly some newspapers are concerned that he is not 'one of them'. They have been a bit mean to him, to be honest - all that stuff about him missing his taxi and not getting into Downing Street - it's very petty.

- Do you think his appointment was a message from the Government that it is moving away from Andy Coulson-style figures who come with their own problems?

It would be a huge mistake to use the appointment of a PR man as a PR opportunity. But I suspect the Government will soon realise it is unable to control government messages through broadcast media. It will have to develop the same kind of relationships with newspaper political columnists that it has always had and stop the newspapers turning on Craig.

- You joined C4 from the BBC - could Auntie ever lure you back?

I can't think of a reason why I would leave. I have been here for more than 12 years and Channel 4 News has evolved and grown.

- How did you feel when the lunchtime bulletins were dropped and when C4 went through tough times?

It is always disappointing to lose a service, but the decision was taken for budgetary reasons and there was nothing we could do. There is a good feeling about Channel 4 now after a couple of years of considerable uncertainty and changes of leadership. Things are going really well with David Abraham (CEO) and Jay Hunt (chief creative officer) at the top. Jay is already making her presence felt and is a great decision-maker.

- Jay Hunt has had a tough time of late with the ageism row ...

The people who are the best presenters do not fall into easy categories - young, old, black, white, male, female. That is not to say that there aren't people working in TV who may be sexist, ageist or racist, but the way it has been portrayed has been simplistic and silly. You have to be able to hire the talent you believe is the best.

- Do you think TV has a duty to take diversity seriously?

TV and C4 in particular have a duty to reflect the country and that means male, female, black, white, people with disabilities and everyone else. But that does not mean we need to have a tick-box approach regardless of people's ability to do the job.

- Has your ethnicity ever been an issue for you?

My race has only ever been a positive issue in my career. What is an issue is that in the industry there is a sense that we need more diversity, so we hire a black or Asian person and then say we don't need any more. I did a live show on Dispatches presenting with Faisal Islam, which was a huge step for a programme to be fronted by two British Asian men from the north of England - and I was actually the only person asking 'are we sure about this?'.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

1998 Joins Channel 4 News as one of the main presenters

1994 Joins Newsnight as assistant producer, and then becomes a reporter

1991 Joins Newsround as a presenter

1988 Joins BBC at age 18, presenting Open to Question, and continues to work for BBC while studying PPE at Oxford.

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