The Accusers and The Accused

A recent report suggests a trust crisis between in-house PROs and journalists. Stephen Hoare quizzes both camps to find out what is wrong.

Trust between heads of comms and journalists is what oils the wheels of a good story. While journalists rarely admit it, the symbiotic relationship is a gentleman's agreement both parties respect and seldom break.

Yet according to a recent survey by selection agency Watson Helsby, which questioned the heads of comms at 20 FTSE 100 companies, the faith between senior PROs and journalists is in serious danger of breaking down.

In the survey, internal heads of comms revealed a long list of discontentment with journalists. They accused them of having an 'increasingly tabloid style of reporting', of trivialising weighty stories by going for the sensationalist angle, and approaching stories with a 'preconceived opinion about a company'. This, said PROs, leaves them with little ability to influence the tone of articles. Worse still, they say many journalists are willing to break the confidentiality of off-the-record briefings to rush lurid and factually incorrect stories into print.

The report is a pretty damning one. 'Like any research, it started off as exploratory, but when these general themes clearly revealed themselves, we started to look into them more deeply,' says report author Nick Helsby. He adds: 'It's a dispassionate, rational response from PROs rather than an emotional, reactive one, but nevertheless, they do think things have changed; that they are having to deal with younger, more cynical journalists, who are spreading themselves more thinly, but still need that story.'

That the rules of the game are different is supported by journalists themselves. As The Times business editor Patience Wheatcroft says: 'We've seen the end of the "Friday night drop", where you could tell when you opened your Sunday paper which journalist had been given inside information. Journalists now have to work harder to get stories.'

However, as Helsby says, it is PROs who seem to be feeling the pressure.

'One told me "you just have to be smarter now". Trust has not disappeared, but it is diminishing.'

So what are the accusers (PROs) really saying about their relationship with journalists, and how do the accused feel about this? We asked three pairs to go head-to-head for their honest opinions on the matter.

ON THE HUNT FOR SCOOPS...

PETER MORGAN, DIRECTOR OF GROUP COMMUNICATIONS, BT

The British press do not see it as their job to be supportive of British industry, and I understand that the workload of journalists is increasing.

I'm sympathetic to journalists' demands, but my job is also to protect and improve the reputation of the business I represent. There are issues where I can't be as open as I want, but while I won't always tell everything, I won't tell untruths.

It's my view that it is incumbent on journalists to keep coming up with good ideas for talking to us as everyone gets the same regulatory press releases. Journalists who repeatedly take a hostile view of us and don't report fairly are known to me and other heads of comms and there is remarkable consensus between us about who are the more reputable and thorough. Fact-checking is a casualty of journalists being too busy, but the newer crop are much, much younger and with less experience than the ones they have replaced.

PHILLIP INMAN, PERSONAL FINANCE EDITOR, THE GUARDIAN

We're under increasing pressure to get scoops, because the stories you print have to set you apart from the competition, including The Guardian's own online news service. Heads of media relations are using long-term relationships as a carrot to make you play down a story.The unspoken rule is that if you go ahead and print the story, then you're no longer going to be in the loop. You have this fantastic opportunity, but you can't afford to piss them off.

I usually deal with an external PR agency - such as Brunswick, Citigate or Financial Dynamics - but the methods even they use have become ever more sophisticated. They are expert at playing down bad news. I've had them deny a story, and when we've checked it out it emerges that everything the customer has told us (about a financial product) is true and worse.

You are never actually 'lied to', but you can be thoroughly misled. That sort of thing breeds a certain air of resentment.

ON BUSINESS LEADERS...

IAN BURNS, HEAD OF MEDIA RELATIONS, BRITISH AIRWAYS

I started my job at BA the day after 9/11, and since then it's been one crisis after another. We've had the Asian flu epidemic Sars, foot-and-mouth - which affected tourism to the UK - and there's been high and volatile oil prices, which affects profitability. But we've got a very media-savvy CEO, a strong press office and an excellent relationship with the press, and we make ourselves available to the media out of hours, evenings and on weekends.

Press relations is a two-way street. You've got to have trust on both sides. We get around 3,000 articles written about us in the course of a year, and I can count on the fingers of one hand those we took umbrage at. I have always found journalists to be professional, hard-working and calm under pressure. No other country the size of the UK has such a highly developed media industry and the breadth and quality of journalism. It's incredibly competitive in the UK and there's a huge demand for stories.

PATIENCE WHEATCROFT, BUSINESS EDITOR, THE TIMES

Business stories are moving up the book to the main news pages. Our readers are employed by companies and they have pensions invested by companies, so they want to find out what they're up to. But it's the CEO rather than the head of media relations who determines the sort of coverage a company gets. Your CEO has to be accessible and open if you are to have a positive press.

Take Phil Hall at Shell. He had never been accessible to the media, so when things started to go wrong, there was no pool of goodwill for the company to draw from.

Are the press more tabloid? It varies. In their haste to be first with the news, online and broadcast media just stick the results up on the screen. We look harder; we will read through everything and talk to the senior executives so that we can pick out the future trends and analyse the situation. No one here would break the confidence of an off-the-record briefing.

ON 'TABLOIDISATION'...

TIM JOHNS, VICE-PRINCIPAL, GLOBAL MEDIA RELATIONS, UNILEVER

Fifteen to 20 years ago, you could manage the news by releasing information after the Evening Standard had been put to bed or by leaking a story to the Sunday papers on Friday evening.

The biggest change in the role of head of media relations has been with the advent of 24-hour global news that crosses borders instantly. The story about the carcinogenic food dye, Sudan 1, was not only big in the UK, but it was big in China and South Africa as well. Managing that in real time was quite a challenge.

I think the press have always been sceptical. There are always journalists who will be prepared to stitch you up. Broadsheets have evolved from having business sections that would report on business to being 'story-chasers'.

Heads of media relations like myself have a dual role - to be a mirror that reflects information from within the company to the outside world, and to be a conduit for views and opinions from the outside world. You have to manage expectations internally.

CHARLES PRETZLIK, UK COMPANIES EDITOR, FINANCIAL TIMES

After Enron and the dotcom boom, journalists are more likely to be sceptical and less inclined to believe off-the-record briefings. In my experience, off the record does not mean you are being told the truth.

The report criticises tabloidisation, but without explaining the underlying reasons. Tabloidisation is not a state of mind, but a production issue.

In changing to a tabloid format, broadsheets such as The Times and The Independent suddenly found they had more pages to fill. If your business section suddenly goes from five pages to 15, then you have to find three times as many page leads from which you can hang a picture, and there aren't that many top stories. So editors are under pressure to slam up a story - to make it appear more significant than it really is. One thing I will say is that FT journalists always respect confidentiality. If we gained a reputation for burning contacts and disregarding off-the-record discussions, it would be very damaging. Our readers look to us to be balanced and fair in our coverage, and we ignore that at our peril.

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