Journalist survey: The media view

Fresh research data compiled exclusively for PRWeek reveals how journalists rate PR agencies across different sectors. Mary Cowlett on the reasons for their assessment

Every PRO has a favourite journalist and journalists, too, rate some PR agencies above others. But as discussed at a recent PRWeek round table (PRWeek, 11 July), the relationship between the two sides has altered considerably over the last few years.

Therefore, to examine journalists' attitudes towards the PR industry, PRWeek commissioned MORI, as part of the research body's regular opinion leader surveys, to conduct exclusive research, inviting the media to name the best-performing agencies, in addition to asking them to rate what makes PR firms either good or bad.

Telephone interviews with key journalists working across five different industry sectors took place over the first six months of 2003.

While this produced quite small sample sizes - which breaks down as 19 journalists working across the chemicals, pharmaceuticals and medical sectors; 34 in oil and energy; 31 in retail; 40 in transport; and 35 business and finance journalists - respondents represent every sector of the media, from daily and weekly national newspapers to regional, business and consumer press, broadcasters and online news sites.

'This research is a robust quantitative survey, not just an informal chat with journalists, and the findings are of a nature that is rarely found in the public domain,' says MORI head of opinion leader research Joel Down.

The most startling discovery is which PR agencies journalists rate as providing the best all-round job for their clients. This reveals that PR firms boasting the largest fee incomes in PRWeek's Top 150 are not necessarily held in the highest regard by the media.

Fifteen per cent of oil and energy journalists rated Weber Shandwick as doing the best all-round job, while Financial Dynamics and the Shire Health Group came top for 19 per cent of chemicals, pharmaceutical and medical journalists. FD was also number one in the transport sector.

Yet, interestingly, while Brunswick may well expect to receive the most mentions from business and finance journalists (60 per cent), the agency also topped the retail rankings with 42 per cent, clearly ahead of second- placed Finsbury, which was mentioned by 19 per cent of respondents.

'These results may have occurred because journalists haven't had much contact with those agencies that didn't rate highly or, more worryingly, it may illustrate some PR firms are not as effective at their job,' says Down.

A further explanation lies, perhaps, in the nature of the samples. While the results seem to indicate a definite business and financial slant to the journalists' interests, it must be of some concern that, while mentioned by respondents, agencies such as Hill & Knowlton, Bell Pottinger Communications and Countrywide Porter Novelli - all of whom possess hefty corporate divisions - have not featured more strongly.

'The question it raises is "why?",' says Down. 'Is it that the calibre of their people is not good enough or because staff are overstretched?

Or perhaps they are under-briefed by their clients or senior people within the agency?'

CPN corporate director Simon Taylor argues that if the survey respondents work primarily across investor relations, he isn't too worried by the survey findings, as financial reporting is not a specialist area for his agency. However, he admits oil and energy represents a big chunk of business for the firm, leading him to question the research.

Unsurprisingly, those that did well in the survey feel it vindicates their approach to media relations. Brunswick preferred not to go on the record, but FD chief executive Charles Watson says the physical structure of his agency has been built predominantly along sector lines.

According to Watson, this set-up has helped the agency attract a number of specialist practitioners. FD's staff currently boasts a post-graduate biochemist, a former Sunday Times industries editor and a one-time head of investor relations for NatWest. 'This means that we can inject real added value for journalists,' adds Watson.

Likewise, Weber Shandwick head of media strategy Peter Morgan claims PROs have a huge advantage if they have previously worked in journalism, as they are well-placed to avoid the pitfalls of pushing unusable material at the media, while not balking at approaching journalists with a decent story. Although protesting the media team's collective youthfulness, Morgan states that 'between me and the other two senior members, we have 55 years of newsroom experience, and we know a hell of a lot of people'.

Yet what do journalists consider to be good media relations? When asked which attributes characterise the best PR agencies, respondents' answers were fairly consistent across all sectors, with 'knowledge of the sector and client companies' as the top requirement.

'A good PRO must know the subject inside out - be it an issue, service, business or product - and understand what the media wants and how it works,' states Daily Mirror business editor Clinton Manning.

While it seems remarkable that any PR agency could fail to understand a client's business or its marketplace, lack of knowledge in this area also topped the list of what characterises the worst agencies.

Another key concern for respondents - and the number one priority for oil and energy specialists (35 per cent) - was providing access to senior executives.

While the journalists PRWeek spoke to were happy to use PROs as spokespeople, they emphasised this was only for reasons of speed and in the absence of a more senior director. And, as Manning says: 'The best PROs - in other words those most respected by the client and most useful to the hack - are those trusted to give a quote in the CEO's name.'

One surprising finding was that journalists do not seem too bothered about press release quality - for example, it's an attribute only three per cent of business and finance specialists look for.

A likely reason for this is that with the exception of financial results, most journalists use the bare bones of a release as the launch-pad for greater things. 'On a Sunday paper, press releases are largely irrelevant, because if it's been sent to everyone else then it has very little news value to us,' points out The Sunday Times deputy business editor John Waples.

However, responses to the attributes that characterise the worst agencies make fairly depressing reading. It seems journalists are still being bombarded by PROs pushing stories that are irrelevant to their publication or programme.

More! features editor Amanda Astill complains she receives hundreds of press releases from PROs who have clearly not bothered to read the magazine.

'They're not aware we don't have a product page, for example,' she says.

Likewise, ITV News programme editor Alex Chandler highlights that PROs need to question more honestly whether what they have to say is genuinely interesting and newsworthy.

He says: 'We're highly unlikely to do something on the launch of a financial product, but maybe a financial company could tap into an item on consumer debt or house prices.'

Other major grievances include PROs who don't return calls or emails, low availability of staff, and that age-old problem of PR agencies contacting journalists at inappropriate times. Here, complaints range from PROs who are obviously trying to meet a call quota and reel their spiel off over the phone to those who have no grasp of media deadlines.

While many of the PR industry's major players are rated by journalists, there is a more worrying trend emerging. The research reveals a substantial number of journalists, more than 40 per cent in some sectors, don't know the name of the agencies they deal with most frequently - surely a sign that better relationships need to be built.

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