Visiting a newsroom can show you far more than how presenters look with their ties off. Seeing a news operation in action reveals two central truths about media relations: first, journalists work under time pressure; second, there are not many of them.
This lack of resources means few outlets run tours of their premises for PROs or anyone else. 'Don't say we do tours or the world and his wife will be calling,' groans one broadcaster's PRO. Conversely, another says: 'I'd argue that the best way for PROs to understand what we do is to see the output, watch the product.'
Yet broadcast or print outfits would be unlikely to refuse a request from a PRO to look around. And a tour of a newsroom is likely to demonstrate above all that journalists really do know they need to establish relationships with PROs. PRWeek visits three newsrooms to get the lowdown.
Understand need for visual impact
It is a mid-December morning on an industrial estate west of London.
Inside, on the set of Sky News breakfast programme Sunrise, Emma Crosby and Simon McCoy face a bank of remote-controlled cameras.
Through a glass partition behind the presenters, the newsroom and Sky's 'news wall' are clearly visible. To the left is the vivid green backdrop against which the weather is presented. The floor manager wanders in and out - young, cheery, unflappable. During an ad break, McCoy looks up from scanning copy for his upcoming item on that day's literary Bad Sex Awards shortlist to ask politely: 'Is this a nice story in PRWeek, or a nasty one?'
Next door, in the gallery, a top line of monitors is tuned to the programmes of competitors such as ITN, the next one down to Sky's live feeds, showing the street outside the Old Bailey and an empty chair at its Millbank studio.
In the newsroom, veteran broadcast journalist Geoff Meade, currently Sky's royal and defence correspondent, explains what he wants from PROs. 'I get a lot of emails about events that lack visual appeal,' he says. ' For TV you need visual impact, not just a talking head. I want to know: can we get to the location and has it got a relevant angle. I have to go to the newsdesk and sell the story, and it's very competitive - they have plenty of other stuff and it's got to earn its place.'
In a cupboard-sized office, executive editor John Ryley abandons his unequal struggle to get the TV to work and takes up the point: 'We often have big demands to make on organisations late in the day,' he says.
'We are sometimes struck by companies with a story to tell when they say "it's too late, we've done the accreditation" or "there's no-one here".
We're fast and flexible and expect others to be so. Radio, print and TV are distinct media. People will often ring up with a story idea but haven't thought it through. What facilities are available and who's going to be there? Increasingly we want to see, say, the inventor of a product or the people who'll benefit from it, not an interview with the MD.'
Despite the concentration of rolling news on the day at hand, forward planning remains a vital part of the process for Sky. Deputy head of news Simon Cole chairs today's meeting on what's coming up. The agenda is dominated by weighty affairs such as the Soham trial and the Commonwealth summit in Nigeria. But there is also something on shop staff being driven mad by Jingle Bells, while a newsy angle about personal debt might help a release about the equation for the perfect Yuletide make the cut. 'Excellent,' grins Cole. 'Christmas is here.'
Next door, a cardboard container bears the legend. 'In case of Pope death, open box'. It's a reminder that some events will guarantee blanket coverage.
Vince McGarry co-ordinates Sky's forward planning, juggling ideas from the Hutton Report to the 2006 World Cup. Information on events should be sent to him with as much notice as possible. His bugbear is emails that don't explain in a sentence why he should be opening them, but instead rely on the recipient clicking on attachments. For a news editor who might answer 400 calls in an 11-hour shift, such an approach will not find favour. As McGarry says: 'Some PROs have no idea how little time we have.'
Get to grips with the news agenda
Over at the CNBC Europe studios near St Paul's Cathedral, an average of one group per fortnight visits the newsroom. Helen Alexander, a producer on the Dow Jones business information TV channel, sees the value of these tours in helping people understand the agendas of morning programmes such as Squawk Box and Power Lunch.
A small set dominates one side of the newsroom, where lines of journalists work at screens. Studio guests are shown into a tiny green room close by to await their time in front of the robot cameras. The master control room's walls are a chequerboard of screens carrying feeds from locations around the globe.
Lack of media resources is pressing
'PROs are surprised by how few people there are,' says the channel's PR head, Charlotte Blenkinsop. 'There are not thousands of people on the newsdesk to take these calls.'
Despite this, Alexander admits there are some PROs whose calls are definitely worth taking, though these tend to come from City agencies that have tapped successfully into the news agenda. But Blenkinsop adds: 'Business-to-business and medium-sized consultancies don't necessarily understand the potential for their more general corporate stories.'
One floor down, at Dow Jones Newswires, journalists work in an open-plan office space, grouped by industry sector (foreign exchange, pharmaceuticals, energy) or by function, such as the spot news teams, who get news to the wires from 7am. Their subscribers are traders, analysts, fund managers and so on. Senior editor Gabriella Stern is clear about what she needs from PROs. 'Exclusive news, access or insight,' she says.
Stern is happy to take questions during her presentation on the group's media activities, which has been given to numerous PROs in an attempt to explain the newswire's objectives - to break and report European business news. 'Truthfully, I'd rather have more pitches than less,' she says.
'I'm worried about PROs self-censoring, and I'm worried that journalists sometimes turn things down too fast without using the relationship as a stepping stone to a larger story.
'Keep pitches short and sweet on email. Invite a reporter out to lunch and ask: "what are the stories you want to break?" A merger, CEO retiring, approval of a new drug? Get to know the reporters and editors.'
Alongside face-to-face contact with the people who decide daily running orders, practical advice is the most useful aspect of newsroom tours.
Limited resourcing and time are problematic. But, as a means of developing relationships with the people who can give exposure to clients, they are hard to beat.
WHERE TO GO FOR A MEDIA TOUR
Although organised media tours remain rare, the following selected outlets say they would be willing to consider a request from an agency or in-house PR team.
A spokeswoman says that while there is no formal structure, newsroom tours are something that can be done ad hoc if arranged through the PR department.
Press office 020 7782 5000
Chrysalis Radio (includes LBC and Heart)
Tours include the studios and offices, meeting representatives from programming, sales and marketing.
Huw Davies 020 7465 6093
LBC, Jenny Beckman 020 7465 6204
Channel 4 News
Tours are discouraged, but a spokeswoman says deputy news editor Martin Fewell has addressed groups of PROs on what journalists want. 'It is not as if we are not open to PROs. We also go to them,' she adds.
Press office 020 7430 4220
Claudia Coles, CNN vice-president, press, says: 'We don't turn requests for tours down as a matter of course. We consider them on their merits.'
PA recently hosted the IPR Greater London group's AGM and encourages contact with PROs. 'We are always keen to show people what we do,' says PRO Elizabeth Castle.
Martin Huckett 020 7963 7849
Limited tour space might be available, although it is more usual for Reuters journalists to visit groups of comms professionals to explain what they want in terms of stories and approaches.
'We would be interested in seeing financial PROs. But something would have to be in it for us, if that doesn't sound too calculating,' says the FT's Alice Owen.
Contact: 020 7873 3829.