In the drive to bring maximum efficiency to the PR industry,
personal contact between PROs and journalists may be falling by the
wayside - and with it an essential element of trust.
The main casualty is that old industry staple - the press
Ten years ago barely an excuse was needed to gather hacks together and
bombard them with information from the platform. Now press conferences
are old hat in all but a few circumstances.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson knocked another nail into
their coffin when he blew the whistle on Man Utd's weekly press briefing
last month - ostensibly to spend more time with his players but
reportedly because of tension between him and the media over United's
Ferguson's decision has little in common with the factors that have seen
the press conference increasingly sidelined - he has frequently
expressed what he feels to be the futility of talking to the media.
But elsewhere, the rapid growth of communications technology enabling
quicker and cheaper dissemination of information has played a greater
role than acrimony in governing whether or not press conferences will be
So has technology made face-to-face meetings redundant to such an extent
that personal contact is becoming a thing of the past? And should
attempts be made to bring journalists and PROs together when a click of
the button could save time and money?
News release distributor na europe thinks so. It launched Media Forum
last month with the aim of ensuring the two can still rub shoulders in
the real as well as virtual world. Chairman David Davis says the forum,
which will run seminars and discussion events as well as informal
gatherings, has 100 members from within PR - journalists are invited to
forums without requiring membership. The first forum was held two weeks
ago in association with the European Journalism Centre.
Davis says the rapid distribution of information puts a premium on
efficiency and reaching large numbers at the expense of relationships.
He is not the only one - most people canvassed for this article believe
they could benefit from increased personal contact and the trust that
goes with it.
'Relationships are at the core of good PR, but they're increasingly hard
to develop,' says Davis. By providing what is essentially an excuse for
two parties to get together, he hopes that rare element of contact can
Davis's view on the death of the press conference is backed by those in
this niche sector. Tim Harris, owner of conference producer The
Presentation Factor, says: 'We are asked to stage a lot fewer press
conferences now. There's been a climate change - people just don't
automatically attend a jolly the way they might have done a few years
Rather than attributing this decline to technology, Harris says people
are simply too busy to attend such events and need better justification
for going to the required time and expense.
Graham Goodkind, Frank PR chairman and a former Lynne Franks aide with
experience arranging press conferences throughout the Nineties,
He puts the decline of the press conference down to new moods within the
Extra pressure on journalists and deskbound editorial staff mean all but
the most justifiable events are likely to be poorly attended. From a PR
point of view, Goodkind cites the decline of the Ab Fab mentality of
endless wining and dining at clients' expense. 'Why spend £20,000
on an event, when info can be circulated to hundreds of journalists
electronically?' he asks.
But like Davis he sees the drive towards efficiency at the expense of
personal relationships as potentially damaging. 'It will separate us
over time and that is going to be a problem,' he warns.
Although one-to-one meetings are still common, and off-the-record
briefings continue to thrive, there are areas where press conferences
still have a role to play. In sport, for example, the departure of a
footballer from one team to another is invariably heralded by a
flashbulb-heavy press conference at which the opportunity for the player
to meet the local press corps of his new employer is exploited to the
Crisis management likewise benefits from old-style conferences, where
reporters' questions can be dealt with in one swoop and the legs of the
story controlled. This is particularly true of government work at the
moment, since technological advances make press conferences both more
watchable for reporters and more efficient for government briefers.
And in the financial sector - especially in IR - press conferences
remain a way of life, according to The Financial Times diarist Sundeep
Tucker, who claims that he and his colleagues are out and about as much
Despite this, agency PROs accept technology has damaged the utility and
viability of press conferences. But according to David Hargreaves,
Firefly Communications deputy MD, the solution to estrangement may be
more technology, not less. As broadband connections become more
effective, video conferencing will make electronic communication more
personal and more interactive.
The Presentation Factor, for example, has held its first virtual
conference attracting 250 people - Harris claims a similar event in the
non-virtual world would have been lucky to attract 30.
As industry sources point out, virtual conferences are only likely to
provide a substitute for personal relationships if a relationship