ANALYSIS: PR work affected by conflict in Iraq

There is less space for PR-generated news copy at the moment as war coverage dominates. Yet this is just one of the ways in which PROs are being affected by the war.

With US troops this week advancing on Baghdad, the PR sector in the UK is divided as to the extent to which the war has impacted on their day-to-day operations, with substantial variation depending on the business sector.

While some PR teams have been working overtime handling crisis and internal comms briefs - plus increased media interest in their companies or clients if they are in the defence, travel or reconstruction sectors - many businesses are continuing to operate largely unaffected by the crisis.

Likewise some sections of the media are more pronounced no-go areas for story-placing PROs than others.

Space devoted to PR material in the broadcast arena has fallen enormously in the past week and broadcast PROs are feeling the pinch.

BroadView MD Stuart Maister says three of the six broadcasters that specifically visited his client's stand at the Ideal Home Show last week had their pieces axed as a direct result of the start of the bombing campaign.

But he adds: 'Broadcasters think viewers will become war-weary quickly.

I was talking to one today and he said he wanted to change the balance of coverage to include more non-war stories from next week.'

On the client side, British Airways is one company onto which the media spotlight has turned. As head of corporate comms Iain Burns says: 'When the war began, we knew the media would use us as a barometer of how war is affecting business generally.'

Like many PR departments in the aviation, defence, utility, engineering and financial services sectors, Burns's in-house team has set up a 24-7 press office to monitor and respond to events as they take shape. BA has also produced 'reassurance leaflets' to be handed out to passengers.

With the stock markets fluctuating wildly from one day to the next, it is clear the work of financial PROs is being affected by developments.

Founding partner of financial PR and investor relations shop Catullus, Alex Mackey, says the advent of the war is likely to impact on the scheduling of planned work if not the size or the certainty of the fee that PR consultants are receiving.

Another City PRO says: 'In terms of media handling, deadlines seem to have moved. For example, since the war started last week, City news-desks are getting in at 8am rather than the more leisurely 10am of peacetime.'

For agencies, coverage of the conflict - and less non-war news - can be either a PR boon or blow, depending on whether the PRO's aim is to keep the client in or out of the news.

Willoughby PR boss Elisabeth Lewis-Jones also points out that war causes advertisers to pull gung-ho ads, which in turn means there are even fewer editorial pages, thus making the challenge of gaining coverage for clients tougher still.

She says it would be wise to increase the focus of work on regional and local newspapers in the face of blanket national coverage.

PR events may have to be cancelled, with some agency bosses saying this is happening already. One agency head admits his firm has postponed a major event, which, he says, 'might have been deemed inappropriate in the circumstances'.

In respect of PR practitioners' responsibilities as broader business consultants, one agency chief says: 'Any agency worth its salt will have already briefed each client on how this war will affect their PR activity.'

Such briefing may be necessary for 'newsy' clients, but less so for those that focus their efforts on consumer and lifestyle agendas. For example, joint-MD at consumer PR shop Revolver Communications Martin Ballantine says: 'Most of our PR work involves getting clients into consumer titles - this war is not going to wildly divert magazines such as Cosmo from their editorial agendas.'

This view is echoed by others, such as BGB & Associates MD Debbie Hindle, who says brand-building will be postponed in favour of 'short-term tactical activity to boost bookings', such as reader offers.

And one consumer PR chief says: 'Some clients will try and ask us to cash in, for example, asking whether we can get consumer coverage by sending samples (of a product) to the troops. I would caution against this as it would be seen as crass.'

Ultimately, many PROs admit to being most concerned about the potential long-term effect the war will have on an already-sluggish economy.

If Iraqi resistance proves more robust than expected, it will be some time before the work of many PR practitioners can return to normal.

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