News analysis: What journalists think of City PROs

City journalists say financial PR does not affect their judgement of companies, according to the latest Mori Reputation Centre survey. Tom Williams looks behind the figures to see what does influence City comment.

Press relations is a vital tool in corporate communications, but one which business and financial journalists appear to undervalue.

Fewer than a third of financial journalists believe that press relations is an important factor in the judgements they make about companies, according to a poll released in December 2003 by the Mori Reputation Centre.

Furthermore, the percentage of these journalists who consider that the communications or information provided by financial PROs is important to their judgement is down 14 per cent on the previous year. If these trends continue, financial PROs might as well pack up and go home.

Such statistics, however, say as much about financial and business journalists as they do about the efficacy of financial PR. It is a well-worn cliche that, love or loathe each other, journalists need PROs and vice versa.

But a chat with some of the City's scribblers can be very revealing about how this relationship does and does not work.

Indispensible service for the press

Although press relations may not feature very highly on the horizons of most City and business journalists, it is clear that few could do without it. Evening Standard City news desk editor James Armitage freely admits the advantages of working with a smoothly functioning press office.

'Because of our crazy deadlines, press relations is probably more important to us than some of the morning papers. We have to get clarification quickly,' he says.

Indeed, the disregard with which media relations is greeted by some business and financial journalists is more to do with the fact that desk editors are now used to professional dissemination of news and financial information.

'Press relations in itself does not make a difference to the judgements we make about companies, but the presentation of the information sent to us is important,' says Investors Chronicle news editor Oliver Ralph.

'The most significant factor to influence our judgement is a company's financial performance, and our decision is really a question of looking through the company's financial accounts,' he adds. 'But the presentation of most financial information is fairly standard, and most companies are pretty good at doing this.'

It is only when these journalists are questioned about deeper-level communications and information provision that the results of the survey begin to diverge significantly from their real opinions.

In another part of the survey, the number of journalists listing accessibility and openness to enquiries as a factor in their judgement of a company declined by 23 per cent on the previous year. But questioning revealed that accessibility, communications and provision of information were actually seen as very important.

Dow Jones Newswire senior editor, EMEA Gabriella Stern talks specifically about access and information on her list of priorities: 'Access to the key people is vital: not just the CEO, but also the divisional directors.

So too is access to informed PROs who are really empowered by the company and understand the needs of the financial media.

'An ill-informed PRO forces us to scramble around for other sources. That does not hurt our reporting but it can mean that the company is unable to get the story out,' she adds.

When asked directly, few were keen to admit the influence of PROs on what they write, for fear that such an admission might in some way call into question their own integrity.

'No self-respecting journalist will ever admit to a pollster that they are influenced by communications,' says Gavin Anderson chief execuitve Neil Bennett. 'But the fact remains that good communications is vital for any company to get the best out of the financial media community.'

But some journalists, such as the Evening Standard's Armitage, are more realistic. He admits that off-the-record briefings in the middle of a bid situation are a simple fact of life that is bound to have some influence.

'I would rather speak to a real person than a PR man,' he stresses. 'But if company executives would rather we spoke to "deep-throat" PROs then so be it.'

But a much simpler interpretation can be placed on a survey in which journalists rate financial performance, quality of management and corporate strategy more highly as influencing factors than press relations and communications. Could it be that PR is actually working?

'Press relations are only one element of how a company figures out what it wants to say and how it goes about saying it,' says Citigate Dewe Rogerson executive director Tony Carlisle.

'The real objective is to get issues like financial performance, quality of management and corporate strategy seen as the most important factors in making a judgement about a company.'

On that basis, at least, PR may well have won the day.

But another senior industry practitioner, who prefers to remain anonymous, is much more frank about the love-hate relationship with journalists.

'The real danger would be if journalists began to believe they didn't need to speak to a company's press office, because, whatever questions they had, the communications team wasn't going to give them an answer,' the PRO says.

Overall, it seems it would be wrong to draw the conclusion from Mori's survey results that financial PR is becoming an irrelevance. But media relations are now fading into the background as judgements are increasingly based on a company's financial performance. And maybe that's the whole idea.

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