Round Table: Building bridges

PRWeek invited a panel of PROs and journalists to discuss how the two professions can better work together without compromising each other.

'Truth has been destroyed by public relations executives, or "scum" as we like to call them.' When this statement appeared in Bryan Appleyard's article in The Sunday Times News Review section (18 May), the PR industry could, quite rightly, have been expected to be a little peeved.

The article, however, concentrated on the 'unholy alliance between PROs and craven hacks' that has emerged in entertainment and sports reporting, and, with the PR industry so wide-reaching, it would be foolish to lump together all PROs under Appleyard's description.

It nevertheless raises a pertinent issue: whether the relationship between journalists and PROs across all sectors has altered over the last few years. Has a constantly evolving media industry - through expansion, launches, the bid for increased circulation and cutbacks in permanent staff - resulted in a media that can be exploited more effectively by PROs for their clients, as fewer journalists look to fill more pages?

To debate this issue, PRWeek brought together a cross-section of in-house and agency PROs and journalists to discuss the trends and changes in the structure of the delicate relationship between these two industries. Would sparks of controversy fly between the two sides?

Changing perceptions

Media content is driven by readers, viewers and listeners. And as consumer obsession with celebrity news grows - even the Financial Times has had Beckham splashed over its front page - PROs could be forgiven for thinking a personality endorsed product is more likely to be deemed newsworthy.

Kaizo director Rosemary Brook regards the celebrity angle as a growing trend, arguing that even with a good health or medical story to put forward, if you can't produce a celebrity to endorse it, the PRO is going to be hard-pressed to get the story into areas of hard journalism.

Mencap head of media relations Mary Sweeting concurs, claiming that for a charity, the celebrity angle has become more important for certain media.

'While celebrities can add to the story, we try to work with personalities with a direct link to our cause, so they can talk about it to the press with feeling,' she explains.

However, the more pressing issue is, the panel claims, not whether a celebrity can help sell your client more effectively to the media, but fostering trust between PROs and journalists.

Even ways to build that trust have altered over the last few years, claims Ian Monk Associates founder Ian Monk - a former news editor of the Daily Mail and deputy editor of the Daily Express - saying the way the Government has run its PR machine has had an affect on the perception of PR.

'Five years ago, half the population of this country had no idea what a spin doctor was, now everyone does,' he says. 'Whether it's been for better or worse, Alastair Campbell has risen the profile of PR.'

Brook agrees. 'While a few years ago some of the aspects the Government PR team has introduced would have been on many consultancies' tick lists - such as consistency and a clear understanding of the direction you're advising your clients to go in - they have let the strings show, and the middle man has become bigger than the story. That is one of the worst things that has happened to our industry,' she explains.

Perceptions of PR have even changed within the industry itself, and as Cunning Stunts head of PR Jonathan Edwards points out, getting out and meeting journalists to build trust between the two sides was put on hold after the PR industry received a comical bashing in Absolutely Fabulous.

'I think the industry panicked and had to be shown as a serious marketing discipline that wasn't about lunching journalists, but was seen to be about strategy for clients,' he says. 'But I think the PR industry lost its way for a time and forgot that one the most important aspects for successful PR is getting out there to meet journalists and building a relationship.'

Getting to know each other

The time-honoured tradition of hacks and PROs meeting for an informal chat over a pint or lunch remains one of the best ways to start up a working relationship, claims Monk. Virgin Radio head of news Andrew Bailey agrees, yet Financial Times weekend news editor James Lamont argues the chat over a beer is not essential in his line of work.

'Some of the best PROs I've worked with I've never met, but they are the ones that give you access to the CEO of their client when you most need it,' he claims. 'The relationships that work well are those that are information rich. These relationships aren't necessarily friendships, they're practical relationships. And if you get a PRO who understands your paper, they become a source rather than a PRO.'

Bailey classes these sources as reactive PROs, of whom he speaks highly.

They set up interviews when he asks for them, and admits the best time to approach him with another story is on the back of a good piece of PR. However, he describes proactive PROs as 'the bane of his life'.

'There's always some 21-year-old who rings every five minutes, asking whether we've received their press release, and hasn't even thought about the media they're targeting,' he says.

It's a comment many journalists could empathise with. But is it an issue PROs can address?

Training new recruits to the industry is one answer, suggests Monk. 'We have to teach our teams about the structure of newspapers, and how they operate,' he says. 'Our industry has to hire people who know the difference between the Financial Times and The Times.'

Both Lamont and Bailey agree, and propose that junior PROs visit a newsroom at a quiet time to be shown how it operates. Or, PR teams should hire in journalists for media training. Edwards, for example, has already established 'meet the media' sessions for his team. 'Hearing it from the horse's mouth is always preferable,' he says.

In addition to understanding how a news team works, a genuine interest in the media is essential to producing a strong working relationship with journalists. Brook regards this aspect as one of the most important areas for the PR industry to develop.

'You have to be a specialist in your own area, for example, in healthcare or technology, but you have to pore over the newspapers every day and take an interest in every other area, too, if you're going to get ahead,' she says. 'You may have the basis of a story, but we have to ensure our teams ask themselves whether every angle has been covered.'

HM Customs & Excise head of comms Peter Rose gives one example of how understanding the way certain media operate pays off.

'We work closely with the regional press, so we gave everyone in our comms team a digital video camera, and they can go to the regional media with a video release,' he says. 'It's a small thing, but it's about thinking how to turn a story into something that's accessible for your target media.'

Bailey, too, points to an occasion where a communications team has understood his news team's needs: the Metropolitan Police posted downloadable short clips and interviews with officers from press conferences on the web.

'They're conscious of the fact that as a commercial radio station we don't have the staff to send out to all the conferences, but that we want to cover the story and have access to comments,' he explains.

As any newsdesk will know, the number of press releases that spew forth from the fax or email every day could bury that newsdesk under paper.

With little time to wade through them, are they still a relevant source to the demanding media world?

Press releases are much more a 'daily provision of information', says Electrolux vice president of publicity Tom Wells, rather than a medium to present the whole story. And Brook suggests it's not about giving journalists every single piece of information, but to provide enough information consistent with the facts.

The journalists agree. Bailey says good journalists don't expect to get both sides of the story from a press release, as PROs are clearly working to get across their clients' messages. 'It's up to the journalist to delve deeper. The release is a suggestion of a story and we have to take it to its conclusion, that's not the PROs job,' he adds.

But to make this happen, PROs need to be empowered to speak with authority on behalf of their client, insists Lamont. 'When you get PROs who can't speak with that authority, and you have to be referred to someone else when you're on deadline, that is incredibly frustrating,' he says.

'And we have a reasonable expectation of honesty and integrity from PROs,' he adds. 'We would rather be told a company has no comment than be told a deal, for example, is not happening and then read about it in another paper the next day; that destroys relationships.'

Wells argues, however, that with Electrolux, the approach is to communicate slightly less than is needed, so it is not regarded as odd when the company doesn't comment. 'We too can worry that the media may take some things out of context,' he admits.

The journalists also insist upon the availability of a spokesperson they can call after a release is issued. If a contact number is included, these people should be available outside of office hours, particularly as news teams do not work nine-to-five shifts. Conversely, Brook argues it's not always possible to get hold of a company CEO at five o'clock on a Friday.

These points bring forward the question of expectations from both sides.

Rose explains how, at Customs & Excise, he finds it difficult - particularly with the broadcast media - to obtain a programme's agenda or synopsis.

'We're prepared to help journalists, but is it too much to ask what the shape of the programme will be?' he asks.

Lamont and Bailey agree it's not unreasonable for PROs to ask for synopses, but to forget about asking for questions prior to interviews and copy approval. 'It's crossing that line we're not prepared to cross,' says Lamont.

All these issues revert back to the need to establish sound working relationships between PROs and journalists. Is there any way to facilitate the first move? As Wells says: 'All PROs have had a first bruising experience of trying to approach a journalist on a tight deadline.'

Sweeting believes it's about tracking what journalists are interested in, and maintaining contact after they've run a big story. However, the issue of how the media has expanded raises its head again.

'There is a difficulty in getting to know every journalist from every piece of media,' Sweeting says. 'Occasionally you want to give an exclusive, but generally you want to see the story everywhere. This is where it becomes complicated to maintain a balancing act, as everyone wants it first.'

Communication between the two sides and understanding each other's needs are crucial to building a solid working relationship that will benefit both sides. As Lamont concludes: 'With such a huge gamut of PROs, you will get some very rewarding experiences. The bottom line is, it's all about building trust.'

THE PANEL

Back row left to right:

James Lamont weekend news editor, Financial Times

Tom Wells vice president, publicity, Electrolux

Ian Monk founder, Ian Monk Associates

Peter Rose head of communications, HM Customs and Excise

Andrew Bailey head of news, Virgin Radio

Front row left to right:

Mary Sweeting head of media relations, Mencap

Rosemary Brook director, Kaizo

Jonathan Edwards head of PR, Cunning Stunts

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