Down to the wire

Wire services can have the most manic newsrooms in media. Ian Hall visits one to see how PROs can better serve them

'Do you need me to flash? If you need me to flash, I'll flash,' chirps Gabby Stern eagerly. The Dow Jones Newswires senior editor for EMEA is referring to writing and uploading a newsflash-style headline – and is willing to provide an extra pair of hands as journalists prepare for another hectic morning.

It is 6.59am in DJN's office near St Paul's Cathedral. Along with Stern, just under a quarter of DJN's 125 London-based journalists are at their desks, with the 'spot news' desk poised for action. While most of Britain has yet to wake from its slumber, they are all set for 7am, when disclosure feeds from primary information providers begin to arrive.

In the seconds – quite literally – after the digital clocks declare the new hour, their PC screens come alive. DJN's post-7am priority is to flash as quickly and as accurately as possible to its subscribers, including dealers and brokers. These clients are on standby to trade shares based on this information. 

Until 2002, Dow Jones and its arch-rivals Bloomberg and Reuters had just the London Stock Exchange's own Regulatory News Service to rely on, but then its monopoly on regulatory announcements was lifted. With DJN, Reuters and Bloomberg all trying to push out their stories first, speed of delivery is the priority.

Full speed ahead
On the morning of PRWeek's visit, major names such as Centrica, Kingfisher and Next have announcements likely to affect their share price. Details on 888.com's initial public offering are also expected: 'We'll have someone flashing that,' says Ian Walker, who runs the 'spot news' desk.

Just 20 seconds into the morning, the office bursts into life as if the journalists are being prodded with hot pokers. They shout for their lives: 'Centrica is in!' declares one; 'Next is here!' says another; 'What shall I pick up? Regal Petroleum is here!'; 'Who's doing Next? Who's flashing it?'; 'Centrica! There are board changes!'; 'No 888 yet?'. Then: 'Is Kingfisher still not in?' Five seconds later: 'Kingfisher's in!'

Walker later reflects: 'The 888 feed came in at 7.04 and 30 seconds – our first headline was on the wire 21 seconds later, I'm quite happy with that.'

Barely five minutes after the frenzy began, the bleeping of the feeds has slowed, as has the flashing, and there is time to take in DJN headlines scrolling up the wire: 'Premier Oil: 1H [first half] Production Ahead of Expectation.' The team quickly beefs up the headlines with background – merely slashing bits from press releases ('cutting out the corporate rubbish,' says Walker) – and adding elements of house style to the information already on the wire.

By 7.25am, senior reporter Isabelle Oderberg declares: 'I've done four fills – I'm free to pick up other news.'

The role of PR people in helping the news desk appears peripheral. But Walker, who is uploading various documents on his computer as an illustration, has time to point out: 'We use PROs to get hold of embargoed releases to help us prepare.'

In recent years, the number of embargoed releases sent in by PROs has fallen dramatically, from contributing to a quarter of all announcements in advance to just 'one or two per cent'. On PRWeek's visit though, PROs involved in two of the most significant financial announcements of the day have earned their corn. 'Today was good. We got them both by 6.40am – a tremendous help,' says Walker.

PROs should note that Walker likes to have all his press releases in his inbox by 6.30am, allowing his team half an hour to gauge performance before confirmation arrives after 7am. Given the speed Walker and his team copy and paste, PROs should take particular note to send releases in email text or as a Word attachment. The most stressful time post-7am was when 'a crappy PDF-format release' arrived. It sounds a minor point, but here every second counts.

While traders are often solely interested in headlines, other DJN subscribers such as analysts want more depth. Fund managers use DJN information to seek out investment ideas, and companies use its insight to monitor competitors. Just across the floor from Walker is news editor Gren Manuel's team of sector experts, which is where, he says, 'the value-add really comes in'. It is 7.45am and they are gearing up for their starting pistol of conference calls, to give top executives the chance to explain financial performance.

Rival journalists will often be on the same call – usually facilitated by in-house media relations staff and/or a financial PR firm. The questioning could not be sharper, and the deadlines are immediate: 'If they say something [newsworthy] on the call, we flash a headline live, while the call is ongoing,' says Manuel. In reality, such calls are unlikely to unearth rip-roaring exclusives, but he says: 'They often help clarify aspects that are vague in the information we already have. Firms often hold newsworthy detail back specifically for the conference call.'

PROs plugging smaller companies have a tough decision to make. If they offer DJN their chief executive or financial director for a conference call or exclusive interview between 7am and 8:30am, they are likely to get short thrift, simply because all of Manuel's team are flat out on major stories (they generally spend the rest of the day on in-depth analyses or fresh scoops). Smaller firms stand a better chance in the mid-morning.

Manuel receives around four unsolicited calls a day from PROs touting senior executives. All the calls are welcome, but only some will lead to coverage.

The rest of the day sees journalists compiling round-up features for relatively new columns such as The Sceptic – similar to the Financial Times's Lex – and heading out to meet PR people. 'PROs generally have a small role in angle generation,' says Manuel. 'It's usually analysts, investors and bankers who inspire us. The feature columns are where smart PROs can capitalise.'

DJN assistant news editor (services) Paul Larkins reflects on how the relationship with PROs has changed over the past ten years: 'There are a lot more trading updates now. The days of long lunches have gone. Only quick informal lunches work now. We used to struggle for the prime interviews – DJN would be third or fourth in line. But we have made inroads with companies, and their PR firms, and now we
aim to get the first slots.'

Time sensitivity
Pimm Fox, assistant news editor, financial services,  is clear what he wants from PROs: 'If agencies could tell us more often who their clients are, that would be good. Also, if someone knows a good report that highlights a particular sector, say market share in an industry, then send us a copy. But don't call me with "trend" stories that are so general they have no timeliness.'

Fox laments the fact that PROs often 'end up being meeting-facilitators'. He gets frustrated dealing with juniors with 'no pull' and who, to him, seem more 'obsessed by managing the flow of information' rather than being knowledgeable.

Reporter Sarah Spikes has a further plea to PROs: 'Even if a story is not primarily about profits, we'll put net profits in the second line. PROs need to make this figure clear in press releases. It's annoying to have to track this figure down.'

But Andrea Hotter, assistant news editor on the commodities desk, is enthusiastic about PR: 'The days when PR firms didn't have a clue about their client seem long gone. A decade ago they were unable, or unauthorised, to comment on client activity. This has now changed, but they are not better sources than executives or the client itself.'

Manuel says some clients underestimate the importance of newswires: 'They want to be in the papers and nothing else. But news-wires have a strong position among investors, and everything is moving towards real-time information.' He also points out that DJN's link with The Wall Street Journal Europe – it is part of the same company and based on the same floor – is 'really attractive' to PROs.
To prove that PROs can really make a difference, he adds: 'There is tremendous difference between the coverage the good ones get and the coverage the dumb ones get.'

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