24/7 MEDIA SURVEY: PR WAKES UP TO GLOBAL MEDIA DEMAND - The first-ever PRWeek/Weber Shandwick survey of how the 24-hour rolling media has impacted on PROs finds 78 per cent of respondents affected. Claire Murphy reports

A story breaks on the internet overnight and is picked up by the national newspapers the next day. Before you know it, the PR department is running on full steam. Ten years ago, this was an almost impossible scenario, but in today's rolling media environment it's presenting a real challenge to PROs.

Increasing numbers of press officers and agency PROs are finding themselves in situations such as this. It is one of the truisms of working in a modern media environment that there is now always a time when someone could be publishing a story about your organisation.

'I think most of us have had to draft a statement from our bed on a Sunday morning,' observes one press officer.

'The days of press offices dealing with domestic newspapers and magazines between nine and five, with a nice long lunch break on Fridays, are long gone,' says Peter Morgan, head of Weber Shandwick's strategic media group: 'The media at least used to sleep at nights. Now it's become the non-sleeping beast.'

PRWeek/Weber Shandwick recently commissioned a survey of in-house communicators to discover how the changing media landscape has altered their jobs.

The results make interesting reading. The biggest surprise is that 24-hour news hasn't ruffled feathers when it comes to working odd hours.

Less than half (44 per cent) of PR people said that their press office's hours are longer than they were five years ago, but 78 per cent of them reported that the 24/7 media environment has made either a 'great deal' or 'some' impact on corporate communications.

But whether or not office hours have changed to any great degree is something of a red herring. The impact of rolling news is principally that press officers have to be 'on call' in their own time (although they often get paid extra when they are).

Ninety-nine per cent of organisations now have PR staff on call, mostly by means of a mobile phone. Eighty-three per cent have supplied their PR staff with globally enabled phones so they can deal with international media.

And it seems everyone accepts that this simply goes with the PR territory - only four per cent of in-house PR managers have a problem recruiting people willing to be contacted out of hours.

One in five organisations now routinely handles more than 11 media calls each week outside office hours; 40 per cent register between five and ten calls. Nearly half of respondents said they had received late-night calls from overseas newspapers, although the vast majority of late or weekend calls are still from UK newspapers and, to a lesser extent, magazines and wire services. Half of the press officers polled reported out-of-office calls from domestic online news sites.

There are two elements to the rising need for round-the-clock PR. The first is the growth of 24-hour domestic TV news channels, jump-started by the advent of Sky's news channel in this country in 1989, which was followed a decade later by BBC News 24. These two pillars of broadcasting have been complemented in recent years by online news sites.

The arrival on the internet of brands such as the Press Association (with its Ananova site), ITN and the BBC has given new respectability to news websites.

This status was boosted further after 11 September, when they became crucial information providers, and has added to the pressure on press officers to respond quickly at all hours of the day and night.

The second strand to 24-hour PR is the impact of a story beginning in one time-zone and spreading across the world. This is an enormous challenge but also an opportunity, says Morgan, if an organisation is set up to deal with global media.

'You could have a story about a multinational company that breaks at noon in Japan. If it is correctly handled by press officers, the effect of it in US markets could be reduced by the time the US chief executive is drinking his morning orange juice,' he says.

Morgan believes that this kind of scenario makes European press officers crucial, by virtue of their geographical position as well as the fact that many of the world's principal news organisations are based here. But there is ample potential for losing the media initiative from a story spinning across the zones, typified by the media frenzy surrounding the US involvement in Afghanistan.

US president George Bush's communications chief, Karen Hughes, told The Wall Street Journal in December that the time-zone problem made the US/UK attempt to co-ordinate media especially tough in London. '(British government director of strategy and communications Alastair Campbell) felt he was getting hit with things the Taliban were saying while we were still asleep in Washington,' she said.

Although a story travelling east to west gives the opportunity for preparation before it hits the biggest global markets, an issue heading in the other direction presents particular problems for European PR people.

The UK press office at accountancy giant Andersen has had to cope with around 150 calls a day during the past few weeks from journalists following the latest twist of the company's ill-fated link with Enron. Andersen's office has often received calls from US journalists before the US office has opened.

Andersen head of PR Paul Clarke says one of the most frustrating days came when a story on the company broke in the New York Times and he had to wait until his US colleagues got into the office to be able to quiz them about it.

As the story was principally driven from the US (until the direct impact on the European businesses became clear), Clarke's team also had to deal with press conferences held during the afternoon in the US.

This required the British team to remain in the office into the evening to prepare responses and then be in early the next morning to field calls from the British media.

Whether it is dealing with time zones or simply the fact that there are domestic media hungry for statements 24 hours a day, it all adds up to erratic working hours for PR people. Stephanie Smith, PR recruitment consultant at marketing recruitment firm Ball & Hoolahan, confirms that the need to be on call is a 'very common' requirement of the job, especially for in-house press officers: 'It's more of an issue where you have a small- to medium-sized company with only one PR person who must be on call all the time.'

It means that press officers have had to learn to be adept at dealing with all kinds of media.

Morgan says: 'I've known PR people with classic media relations backgrounds who are suddenly having to learn how to activate a dark-site (an emergency website that lies invisible on the internet until needed), understand the intricacies of B-roll and webcasting or deal with satellite trucks. It's all well beyond just carrying a bleeper.'

So how has this affected the life of today's press officer? Most organisations choose to roster their on-call duties between the staff.

Holiday company MyTravel's (formerly Airtours) four media relations staff are on call for one week every month.

'It does mean you have to be within driving distance of work, and of course you can't go and get roaring drunk,' says press officer Anna Brewin.

'The number of calls varies enormously - we get far more coverage in the summer season. I was called six times last week, but some weeks I might get no calls at all,' she adds.

Of course, the system is only as good as its ability to hold up when all media hell breaks loose. Of the 57 per cent of press officers who have been involved in a crisis scenario in the past two years, just under half reported getting more than 11 phone calls.

In the month following the biggest news story of modern times - the 11 September terror attacks - British Airways' London press office received 15,000 media calls, three times its average. As events unfolded during the day, the airline switched straight into emergency media operations, activating a special centre that would be staffed 24 hours a day for the next week.

The vast majority of press officers feel 'fairly' or 'very well' prepared to deal with crisis situations out of hours, although the most common admission is that better communication between departments could improve their ability to respond. Keeping everyone on message

is the issue here - it's all very well if you have released a statement claiming one thing, but if a local company employee has given an interview implying something different, you are in trouble. Fifty-six per cent of press officers named ensuring consistency of message across different media as the biggest practical challenge in dealing with 24-hour media.

Dealing with simultaneous disclosure of financial information was named by 35 per cent of in-house PROs as a tricky area. With cross-border deals becoming the norm, companies are often faced with deciding how to juggle time zones to give the world's media an equal crack at the story. In reality, of course, the timing is often dictated by the major players' agendas.

For example, when French communications group Publicis announced its merger with US ad firm Bcom3 and a strategic tie-up with Japanese ad group Dentsu earlier this month, it chose to announce it at a press conference held mid-morning, Paris time. The priority was targeting the European media and investment community - US and Japanese markets picked it up later.

The survey shows that press offices have had to devote more of their budgets to coping with 24-hour news. Thirty-four per cent of in-house PROs have hired extra staff to help them handle the increased workload brought about by the 24/7 media environment, with almost the same number taking on an agency to deal with out-of-hours calls.

When probed further about which areas of their communications strategies they expect to devote a higher budget to during the coming year, 37 per cent of people named website development. This makes sense given that so many media calls are to check mundane details that could easily be included on an 'FAQ' section of the company website.

But the area set to have the biggest increase in budget during the next year appears to be media training. Fifty per cent of in-house PROs plan to channel more cash into training spokespeople, which echoes the fact that ten per cent of them believe better-trained staff could help them cope better with a crisis that emerges outside office hours.

In many ways, having to react to a story out of hours should be the ultimate litmus test of a good PR person.

- PRWeek/Weber Shandwick's survey polled 127 in-house PR people between 22 February and 8 March. There is a nine per cent margin of error.

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