Media relations may be the bread and butter of the PR industry, but
there is still a great deal of misunderstanding about its role within a
large number of UK companies.
A study into this area, ’How Press Aware are UK Companies?’, has been
carried out by Chameleon Marketing Communications and sponsored by
PRDirector, a new media relations CD-ROM company (see panel).
The survey of 2,000 companies across the UK shows that while 92 per cent
of in-house PR professionals think that their organisation has a good
relationship with the media, only 58 per cent of senior marketing
managers and directors feel the same.
According to PRDirector managing director, Helen Brennan, this suggests
a lack of internal understanding about what media relations
’Media relations can be the least controllable part of the marketing
mix, because an organisation is relying on a third party to interpret
their messages on their behalf,’ she says.
The findings show that there is a fundamental gap between what PR people
and others in their organisation think about media relations.
This could be down to most in-house PROs having closer contact with the
media than their colleagues, and therefore viewing the relationship in a
better light. But many believe that too many senior company executives
still struggle to place media relations in perspective as an imprecise
’The findings of this survey do not surprise me at all,’ says Hilary
Berg, head of PR at food retailer Iceland.
’Not all marketing people have a sound understanding of media
Some of them just don’t grasp the unpredictability of putting out a
story on a busy news day. Not to mention the need to work with
journalists to give them what they want rather than trying force a
particular story on them.’
According to Berg, the test of her colleagues’ understanding of media
relations came last autumn, when Iceland launched its ’Food You Can
Trust’ campaign. This initiative - to give customers own-label products
free from artificial colours, flavours and, where safe, preservatives -
was announced to the media on 6 October, an hour before the Paddington
rail disaster happened.
The crux of any organisation’s media relations is the backing of the
senior management team. ’You have to have the chief executive and senior
directors championing what you do,’ says Alex Parsons, press and issues
manager at utility company London Electricity.
Of course, one of the key ways to get senior management backing for
media relations is to prove that it works. Media evaluation to show that
journalists are responding and the messages are getting through is an
important tool to get management to understand the importance of media
relations. Media evaluation can become a powerful management tool as it
shows the strengths and weaknesses of a company reflected in its
London Electricity was bought by French state-owned utility operator
Electricite de France 18 months ago. This gave London Electricity a new
chief executive, Bruno Lescoeur, and raised some tricky issues with the
UK media about foreign ownership and the comparative lack of competition
in the French electricity market.
’We hadn’t been able to talk on the record for a long time,’ says
Parsons, who explains that the company was suddenly thrust back into the
media spotlight, following a four-month period of enforced silence
during the bid process. ’But it was a real opportunity to start afresh
with a new management team, to implement an ongoing and successful media
initiative,’ he adds.
Last March, the company invited the energy and business correspondents
from the broadsheets and wire services to come and meet Lescoeur and his
colleagues. This marked the start of an open-door policy with
journalists, which has been matched by a more relaxed reporting
’We have developed a very open internal culture where there is a lot of
interaction between senior management and all levels, both formally and
informally,’ says Parsons. ’And the senior directors understand the
media, which means that they make themselves accessible to journalists,
and comment on issues wherever possible.’
But for global organisations with a disparate workforce, the task of
tailoring corporate messages for local audiences is often up to
spokespeople out in the field. And it is vital that the decision makers
at the top can handle the task effectively.
’We make sure that the corporate and regulatory affairs division inputs
into management development programmes as widely as possible,’ says Fran
Morrison, external communications manager of British American Tobacco
The company runs specific media skills courses for its general managers
and country managers who form the senior backbone of the organisation in
more than 180 countries around the world. The courses cover areas such
as building skills in managing issues, external and internal
communications and media relations.
In addition, BAT has an ongoing media training programme for its
business managers and line managers covering topics from dealing with
journalists to the nitty gritty of giving interviews.
’One of our principles is that you don’t always want PR people to be the
spokespeople,’ says Morrison.
BAT is currently reviewing its media training offering, to enhance its
capability and delivery at a local level. Morrison says: ’It is
important for our organisation that our business, line and special
managers can explain what they do and the company’s position on issues
in their particular field.’
But it is not only organisations whose business or products raise
challenging issues which realise the value of effective media
’In my industry brands are made and broken in the media,’ says Matt
Peacock, director of corporate communications at on-line service
’That means that there is not a single person in this building who does
not understand the importance of what we say and how we are represented
in the media.’
Peacock thinks this approach is common to most internet businesses, but
he is sceptical of how far this extends to more traditional players. He
tells the horror story of a US oil giant which responded to the global
oil-price slump by laying-off its entire PR team at two hours
’They saw it as cost-cutting exercise,’ he says. ’PR was viewed as a
nice thing to have, but not a core business function.’
At pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Wellcome, the corporate communications
team likes to think of itself as the interface between internal and
external customers. ’On a corporate level we work to put our internal
customers - the marketing teams, or the scientists in the research and
development department for example - in front of the right journalists
so they can put their messages across effectively,’ says corporate
communications manager Phil Thomson.
’Whereas for journalists demanding information we go heavily on breaking
down barriers, so that we are reactive to time and regional
The Glaxo team also looks to provide specialist expertise for the media
by putting forward spokespeople with appropriate knowledge in specific
therapeutic or business areas.’
But how seriously do journalists think companies take media
How do they feel about dealing with the corporate communications
Last month, on the letters page of this magazine, (16 June) freelance
journalist Ken Gofton expressed his despair at the quality of in-house
press offices in general and the lack of urgency displayed by a few.
Unfortunately, Gofton is not alone in his criticisms. ’Some
organisations handle media relations very well. They have awareness of
what the press wants and maintain a good level of contact, without
overkill,’ says Neil Gibbons, international editor of Investor Relations
magazine. ’But others take a more scattergun approach, and that’s just a
complete turn off.’
Gibbons admits that he often feels frustrated by some in-house press
officers’ apparent failure to deliver even the most basic information,
such as naming new appointments. But, in line with the results of the
survey, he thinks this is a problem that extends beyond than the press
’It needs to be a two-way process,’ he says. ’People within an
organisation need to keep their press office informed.’
Many companies in the UK have reporting structures that impede rather
than promote good relations with journalists.
’Clearly some companies are good, they are very organised and are not
afraid of speaking to a journalist,’ says business and finance writer
Richard Willsher. ’But when a company PRO has not been empowered to
speak for a company then that is really frustrating.’
Like many, Willsher identifies the most professional spokespeople as
those who obviously have the backing of senior management. To illustrate
his point, he cites a recent successful interview with the top director
of a US automotive portal. ’It was seamless. The guy answered all my
technical questions, was very helpful and I got everything I wanted,
because the PR person was able to act as a facilitator,’ he says.
While the findings of Chameleon’s study will come as no surprise to
many, the fundamental issue this survey throws up is to what extent
media relations is a core business function. If an organisation does not
have a handle on media relations, it is likely that the corporate
relations director does not have a seat at the top table.
As Peacock says: If there is a gulf between the views of the corporate
communications department and others in the company about how media
relations is perceived, then that shows a lack of confidence on the part
of senior directors in their own PR people.
’It demonstrates that the managing director has not given enough
thought, weight and attention to that particular role within the
company,’ he says.
RESULTS: WHAT COMPANIES REALLY THINK OF PRESS RELATIONS
’How Press Aware Are UK Companies?’, a research study of UK companies
and how they communicated with the media was conducted by Chameleon
The findings are based on a postal poll of 2,000 companies in April
Respondents included marketing managers and directors, external
relations and PR managers and directors within the UK’s largest
business-to-business and business-to-consumer companies, plus directors
from a selection of UK small businesses.
- 73 per cent of UK companies see the media as a positive opportunity to
promote their organisation’s messages
- While two out of three UK companies have a good relationship with the
media, a further one out of three does not.
- Two out of three UK companies feel that their senior managers could be
better equipped to communicate with the press.
- Only one out of three UK companies use specialists PR agencies to
support their media relations efforts.
- The biggest disadvantages of using outside agencies is the high cost
involved in employing them, in 75 per cent of cases, and that they do
not fully understand the organisation’s business and products, in 56 per
cent of cases.
- In 59 per cent of cases, the main advantage of using a PR agency was
considered to be the extra creativity they add to the PR process. The
second advantage was the fact that using an agency gives companies more
time to focus on other areas of PR and marketing, in 49 per cent of
- Practically no UK companies wine and dine editors and journalists to
win them over. Instead, 80 per cent believe that good media relations is
achieved by getting the media to trust that you have something
worthwhile to say.
- 44 per cent of UK organisations are guilty of committing the ultimate
media relations crime of saying ’No comment’ during a press
Two out of three organisations also feel that they have been misquoted
by the press.
- In over half of cases, budget, and time involved in training were seen
as the biggest obstacles to developing internal press relations
- When asked what ’freedom of the press’ actually means to them, 36 per
cent said it was necessary, but think that the press take their freedom
too far. A further one in five companies believe that the press should
respect people’s privacy more than they do.
LEARNING THE RUDIMENTS FROM THE PRDIRECTOR
On 7 July, Chameleon Marketing Communications launched a reference guide
to media relations entitled PRDirector.
Retailing at around pounds 249 plus VAT, this CD-ROM was developed in
response to demands from clients and includes input from a range of
journalists and PR professionals, such as Alison Theaker, head of
education and training at the IPR.
According to PRDirector managing director Helen Brennan, the tool is an
interactive, hands-on source of everything people need to know to put
press relations into action.
The first main section of the CD-ROM is called ’What you need to
This outlines background knowledge for effective press relations. It
examines how to deal with journalists, how to write a press release and
how to make information newsworthy.
There are pointers on delivery techniques, such as when to go for a
one-to-one interview with a journalist or hold a press conference
instead; templates of good and bad press releases; and guidance on
tailoring case studies to different audiences.
The second section is called ’What you need to do’ and outlines what
action should be taken to make press relations work. This looks at the
specific elements of planning, defining objectives and developing a
It contains sample public relations plans and advice on evaluating
activities and learning from potential failures. The CD-ROM contains
video and audio clips of real-life examples, plus a list of contacts for
support services, including press cuttings bureaux, photographers and
’PRDirector could be useful for anybody involved in press relations, but
there are some specific groups of people for whom it can reap particular
benefit,’ says Brennan.
These include SMEs, PR students and graduates, plus global companies
looking to implement consistent corporate press relations practice
across their entire organisation. The CD-ROM could even be useful for
more seasoned marketers, as a benchmark for buying-in outsourced PR
The CD is not intended as a replacement for consultancy expertise, but
as a basic resource. In-house people working for SMEs could use the
product as a starting point for their first PR activity - it also
includes guidelines on working with agencies. For larger companies,
PRDirector could be used as an in-house training resource to enlighten
senior managers who may not see the value of spending time and money on
PR, and for training new recruits from a non-PR background in
PRDirector has 2,000 demonstration CD-ROMS to give away, which can be
obtained through its web site: www.prdirector.com.
ICELAND GETS ITS MESSAGE TO THE MEDIA AND CUSTOMERS
Last month, food retailer Iceland announced a move to invest pounds 1
million to support the National Trust’s ’Whole Farm Planning’ programme
and spend a further pounds 8 million to switch all its frozen vegetables
to organic by October 2000. The company also declared its aim to secure
40 per cent of the world’s organic produce at no extra cost to the
This was potentially the biggest food story of the year, so the media
relations plan centred on keeping the announcement under wraps until
launch day. Following talks with third parties, including the Soil
Assocation, Iceland’s in-house PR department worked closely with the
National Trust’s chief press officer, Sarah Clifford, to produce a video
news release and audio news release, plus a press pack for regional
On 14 June, a broadcast alert was issued with basic details of the
announcement at 6am. This was followed by a photocall and press
conference at National Trust HQ in London, after which the story hit the
However, as this major new strategy was likely to have far-reaching
implications for all Iceland customers, suppliers and stakeholders, it
was vital to involve the entire company.
On the eve of the launch, the PR team ran three major presentations for
staff at its head office in Deeside, and delivered a video briefing for
store employees up and down the country. Each member of staff was
e-mailed with information and every team leader throughout the company
received a copy of the press pack.
’This was critical as we knew media relations would result in customer
enquiries at store levels, plus calls from suppliers and partners into
head office,’ says Hilary Berg, Iceland’s head of PR.
The following day in London, Iceland fielded a team of 15, including
chairman Malcolm Walker, managing director Russell Ford and experts from
the buying and technical departments, who all hit the studios in
Millbank by 5.15am for pre-recorded broadcast interviews.
In the afternoon, a panel of experts were on hand to answer specific
questions and Ford made himself available for interviews at Iceland’s
Fulham store. At 6pm, the team relocated to Westminster for a
Parliamentary reception to explain the organic strategy to MPs.
Broadcast coverage ran all day, ranging from Radio 4’sToday programme
and BBC Working Lunch, to the Jimmy Young Show and Newsnight. The
Iceland team squeezed in 125 one-to-one interviews and the press office
received 550 enquiries from around the globe.
The press conference was attended by 20 journalists, seven photographers
and two TV crews, which resulted in substantial coverage in all the
national and regional newspapers the following day. ’It was really
successful,’ says Berg. ’But I am very lucky. I don’t know how many
other company chairmen or managing directors would agree to get up at
4am to meet the media!’