Why is it that if there is ever a story in the media about a ditzy blonde making a fool of herself, or a celebrity’s adulterous squeeze, she will invariably be described as ‘working in PR’?
Nick Dudley-Williams, director of The Media Foundry, a firm that has considerable experience handling media and agency clients, believes it is because ‘PR people are notoriously bad at PR-ing themselves’. It is a point of view with which few industry insiders would argue. Dudley-Williams points out that he has recently been approached by several PR agencies looking to have their profiles raised, something it could be assumed they might be able to do themselves.
Dudley-Williams prefers not reveal the agencies’ names, but says even the way in which these agencies have briefed him has often been ‘chaotic’.
PROs suggest they are so busy working for their clients that they do not have time to publicise their own work. Martin Long, MD of Golley Slater, disagrees: ‘If you can’t do it yourself, you shouldn’t be doing it for your clients. For the same reasons that we build profile and thought leadership programmes for our clients, it is important Golley Slater is seen as an opinion former. A good PR company needs to share its opinions on how to influence and inform.’
Other PR agencies have also woken up to the necessity of promoting their business to potential clients. At Trimedia, for example, a separate account is dedicated to the agency’s PR, with consultant Helen Standing arguing this is the ‘only way to ensure a consistent profile in target media’.
She says that since the agency created a dedicated account in 2006, it has generated 584 pieces of media coverage, more than 50 new business leads, helped recruit several senior staff and won more than 60 awards.
Much of the reticence the industry displays may stem from its regular portrayal in the media as a haven for fluff.
‘We will never control the media so we need to just focus on emphasising the merits of PR,’ says PRCA director general Francis Ingham.
Perhaps, but as Eden CanCan MD Nick Ede points out, self-promotion should be the lifeblood of your business: ‘Being in the tabloids and a celebrity in my own right portrays me as experienced to potential clients.’
With this in mind, PRWeek asked some well-known PROs for their advice on building a profile.
Founder, Borkowski PR
A well-known PRO, author and media commentator whose high-profile publicity stunts rarely fail for want of an audience, Mark Borkowski points out that a high personal profile can be a double-edged sword.
‘It does get you into places some people can’t go,’ he says. ‘But you need to have pretty thick skin, and be able to take the rough with the smooth.’
As an example, he points to a situation where, after naming and shaming a particular brand in the media, Borkowski found himself shut out of a pitch process a few years later.
Borkowski also believes touting an opinion is pointless if you do not have the track record to back it up. ‘Going forward, any brand has to offer total authenticity and transparency and I am not frightened to talk about what I’ve achieved, and the failures as well,’ he says. ‘You can get up there and talk and pontificate, but you need to have a track record.’
Chairman, Henry’s House
Henry’s colourful background reflects someone equally at ease behind, and in front of, the media lens. Several years spent working at the legendary Lynne Franks PR agency raised his profile immeasurably while his close association with music guru Simon Fuller has kept him in the public eye for more than 20 years.
In addition, Henry’s pop group The Hit Parade saw some success in the early 1990s, and he is a prolific media commentator. Today, Henry is perhaps better known for overseeing promotion for celebrities such as David and Victoria Beckham. ‘There is no correlation between being famous and being smart,’ he points out. ‘But it’s important for an agency to have a personality. It comes down to having the balls to step forward – life is on the record.’
Founder, Luchford APM
Kelly Luchford is happy to admit that her own ability to generate positive coverage is a result of working for Matthew Freud, himself a major media draw, at Freud Communications. ‘I came with a set of credentials and I had my own fresh take on it all,’ she says.
An established media presence, Luchford often displays an uncanny ability to merge personal promotion with client exposure. ‘Only do self-promotion if it is for a clear reason and not for the sake of being famous,’ she warns. ‘Clients do not like to see their PROs getting better coverage than themselves.’
While noting self-publicity is inappropriate in the current economic climate, Luchford believes you need a good spokesperson, confidence in front of the camera and an excellent product.
‘That said, there is always the risk that the higher you climb, the further you fall.’
Director of communications, Virgin Atlantic
Paul Charles is a prolific commentator on all issues to do with aviation and is constantly quoted by broadcast, radio and print journalists. He believes his success in creating this high public profile is down to the fact that, as a former journalist himself, he is proactive and can spot a good story opportunity.
‘I get very frustrated when reactive PR becomes the norm. The best PROs understand the importance of becoming a commentator,’ he says. ‘It helps the business. If you have credibility then journalists will give your business a fair hearing.’
For example, stories last year on British Airways’ planned merger with Iberia gave Charles the perfect platform to talk to the media about the implications for consumers of such a deal. ‘If you’re not proactive, you can’t influence the debate,’ he says. And if you are not readily available, you cannot take advantage of opportunities that crop up on the back of breaking news. The trade-off for being known as a reliable commentator is that your mobile has to be constantly on. In addition, Charles has recently appointed an online press officer with a brief to keep a daily dialogue going with key online opinion formers.
MD, Eden CanCan
As a judge on Sky One’s Project Catwalk, and a fixture in the London tabloids, Nick Ede is a ubiquitous presence across the media landscape. And, as Ede points out, this can only benefit his agency. ‘The most important thing is it gets your name out there,’ he claims. ‘There’s a lot of competition and it’s important to show people your skills set.’
Ede’s advice comes with a note of caution. Clients, he says, must be aware that they always come first. ‘And just because you are in the public eye doesn’t mean that your clients will immediately be in magazines.’
Beyond that, adds Ede, maintain courage in your convictions and pick the right media. ‘It’s actually a big responsibility, which is why I think a lot of people shy away from it,’ he says. ‘Make sure it’s something you know about, because journalists are ready to pick at you.’
Group director of communications, BT
The man who once posed semi-naked in a PR industry calendar is not shy about promoting the profession he represents, noting: ‘PR has never really shaken off the reputation of being amateurish and non-strategic and being populated by people of rather indifferent ability.’
For Morgan, though, it is critical that PROs do not focus their energies on promoting themselves. ‘They should be selling the discipline,’ he explains from the World Economic Forum at Davos . ‘From an outsider’s point of view, it is critical your key stakeholders have a firm grasp of your company’s story, and the credibility of your comms department is tied to that.’
For Morgan, this means making your presence felt in the right manner.
And, he cautions, do not underestimate the importance of promoting your function internally. ‘If key executives don’t hold communications in a high regard, and don’t believe it is a strategic function in the company, then your ability to operate is severely restricted,’ he points out. ‘It has always been a priority for me to establish communications as a respected function.’
How to be media savvy
Prepare for your interview
Don’t shamelessly promote clients
Respect the editorial agenda
Never criticise other PROs in the public arena
Don’t take it personally if your comment is pulled
Avoid waffling but deliver key points