As a print journalist with 20 years experience I have seen PR
trends come and go. These days I find that the PROs are more hands-off
than they used to be. Middle and senior managers are now routinely
expected to deal with the media more or less on their own, as part of
their job specification.
The PR person tracks feature lists and news stories, spots an
opportunity coming up, then passes the lead on to the relevant manager
and lets him or her get on with it, perhaps following up to check that
the journo got all he or she wanted.
I don’t have a problem with this - from my perspective, it is nice to be
able to get straight through to executives who are, after all, more
knowledgeable about a topic or product than the PR person who can blur
the message with Chinese whispers.
I would hate to go back to the days when the PR executive had to be
present every time a manager spoke to a journalist, and before every
interview there was the same negotiation about seeing copy. I like it
more now that PR people are happy for their clients and managers to
develop their own relationships with a handful of key journalists, and
are trusted to deal with incoming calls and queries from the media.
Unless there is a crisis situation and the hatches are battened down,
that’s the way it should be.
Unfortunately though, for every half dozen managers that are competent
and confident at dealing with the press, I still meet many who are
ill-informed about the way the press works, what journalists want or the
best way to deliver their message.
Despite the rise in media training as a standard part of a manager’s
education, I still encounter managers who try to ’sell’ to me as though
I was a customer, who don’t understand the discreet separation between
advertising and editorial, and who insist on going to great lengths to
thank me for mentioning them. Much as I welcome the more discreet
hands-off role of the average PR person, I wish they would prepare their
spokespeople a little better.
And for every manager who is terrified of anyone with the tag of
’journalist’, who will probably never relax no matter how much is spent
on training them, there is another who has let media training go to
their heads. These are the ones who fancy themselves as personalities or
pundits and there is no holding them back.
Few journalists would complain because loudmouths always make good copy,
but from the PR person’s point of view they are loose cannons who are
out of control.
The vogue for unshackling managers and encouraging them to do their own
press relations is reaching the inevitable watershed and I now see many
PR people facing a dilemma: should they take more control of their
clients or managers and insist on being involved in every contact they
have with media, or should they persuade them to invest more in media
training so that their managers above a certain level are reasonably
media savvy and can be trusted to be opinionated without putting their
foot in it?
My vote is for the latter course. Pandora’s box is open and there is no
going back. With the new digital media around the corner, there is going
to be a sharp rise in demand for opinions. Traditional PR executives may
disagree, but I say best to train the managers well, give them the
confidence to go it alone, and even if they do make the occasional gaff,
just hope that the company name is spelt right!
Annie Gurton is a freelance journalist and author.