The Message in the Media - Tackling the big issues

At The Message in the Media event last week, a panel of experts gave their views on the key topics occupying the industry. Kate Magee presents the highlights.

Message in the Media

Last week, PRWeek streamed a live Question Time-style show, The Message in the Media LIVE, sponsored by Electric Airwaves.

The event took place at the Millbank Media Centre and was chaired by Lord Bell, chairman of Bell Pottinger Private.

The show featured a panel of senior PR and media practitioners answering a series of questions posed by both the live and online audience.

The panel comprised Sky News' associate editor John McAndrew, McDonald's SV-P corporate affairs Nick Hindle, E.ON head of PR and public affairs Guy Esnouf, Greenpeace executive director John Sauven and sponsor Andrew Caesar-Gordon, MD of Electric Airwaves.

Here is a selection of the most interesting questions and answers:

What do you think of Roy Greenslade's recent comments in The Guardian that more PR people and fewer journalists is a threat to democracy? (Online question from Jane Wynard, head of PR and comms, Hearst Magazines UK)

John McAndrew (JM) - It's only a threat if journalists let their stories be chosen and moved along by PR people. What we do at Sky News is cover news stories that are picture-rich and interesting to people. Occasionally that means we will need help with punditry, access to case studies or people who can help make a story easier to understand. The Leveson Inquiry has only made our aspiration more intense to ensure that what we do is of the highest quality and that it is right. The damage to our reputation if we get things wrong would be catastrophic.

Nick Hindle (NH) - I don't agree with Greenslade either. Journalists command huge reach, influence and respect, so I think they are in a strong position.

They obviously have to look after themselves and rebuild trust. They challenge us and hold us to account.

Guy Esnouf (GE) If PR professionals do their jobs well, then they help journalists to get more transparency. Our job is to explain our company to the world. Journalists want stories, not necessarily the truth. So we need to look at our truth and frame that in a way that works for us both.

Lord Bell (LB) - It's interesting that the word 'story' now implies that something is a lie.

Andrew Caesar-Gordon (ACG) - I also think Roy has got it wrong. The rise of social media has meant that every citizen is capable of active journalism. If you want to hold power to account and tell truth to power, then citizen journalists are doing that very well. Maybe there aren't as many journalists covering town hall meetings. But there are many people making available their thoughts about the big issues through social media, so I don't think democracy is under threat by having fewer journalists.

John Sauven (JS) - The media are under pressure to make money. They are cutting staff and their ability to investigate becomes more difficult. But I think social media have the power to be transformational.

How has the economic climate over the past four years affected the way in which you communicate? (Question from online audience member)

ACG - There has been pressure on PR budgets but organisations are communicating far more than they used to. Business has been on the front pages of newspapers for the past four years, rather than squeezed between features and sport.

NH - We haven't increased our comms spend, but I think it can make you produce more creative work. Sometimes the less money you spend, the more creative the idea.

LB - That's what clients often say - they believe that if they cut budgets they get better ideas and I think that's completely illogical.

NH - The PR industry still hasn't managed to price ideas. It sells time. What we have seen is a shift in resourcing from marketing to PR and comms. The cost of doing PR has also gone down with the rise of digital.

JS - What is interesting is that the values of a company become clear. I'm an environmentalist, so I can see whether a business is really into sustainability or not. Paul Polman, the head of Unilever, said he wants shareholders for the long term and he talks about having a tento 20-year vision. He's not just looking at boom and bust but much further out. If you invest in the long term then you generate customer loyalty.

Given the recent revelations regarding the BBC's handling of the Jimmy Savile scandal and the cancellation of the pre-Christmas 2011 Newsnight 'expose', how would the panel recommend that this brand goes about reassuring the public and safeguarding its reputation? (Audience question from Rachael Jackson, PR manager, Fred Olsen Cruise Lines)

JM - The story is absolutely horrific. Television news is a relentless media environment and the audience is very diverse and promiscuous, so when you work in an environment like that, there's always a risk you will get something wrong. But if you get something wrong, you have to front up. You have a relationship with your audience and you need to be straight with them. All news organisations make mistakes but it is how you deal with them afterwards that counts.

We always try to be very open about what happened and correct things very quickly and openly.

NH - Firstly the BBC has to do what it can to encourage the facts to come out quickly. As soon as the inquiry is finished and the facts are out, the better for the BBC, because it can start the healing process. It is hamstrung because it can't say sorry until the facts are confirmed. Once the facts are confirmed, it needs a clear plan of action and to take decisions very quickly.

I hope it is communicating internally. It has a huge workforce and those are the people who will be suffering at the moment. The faster it can get its internal comms right, the faster it can get its external comms right.

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