Business Press Relations: Use your business head

Many sections of the media are devoting greater attention to the business world. Dan Bloch reports on how the trend affects PR.

Business news is undergoing something of a renaissance. New business programmes and sections have emerged and existing channels are devoting more attention to the subject.

In March, BBC Radio Five Live launched Sunday evening programme The Weekend Business, aiming to bring business news to its mainly sport-focused listeners. Last month, men's magazine Arena introduced its Black Collar Worker business lifestyle section, dedicated to young professionals in non-traditional businesses, whose interests straddle personal life and work. And The Sunday Telegraph redesigned its City pages in April, adding a diary section and replacing BBC business editor Jeff Randall's Doing The Business column with market commentary from analytical website Breakingviews.com.

While the principles of press relations with the business media are broadly the same as with the consumer media, as the business world becomes more competitive, complicated and international, PROs face some key challenges balancing the needs of corporate clients and the demands of the media that want to report on them.

Recommendations include keeping abreast of the career backgrounds of business journalists. For example, the BBC is now devoting more airtime to business news, an element that, according to Media Strategy managing director Charles Lewington, is down to former Sunday Business editor Randall, who joined the BBC in 2000.

'Randall may have taken a bit of time to settle in, but the BBC now has the courage to run business stories high up the agenda on the Ten O'Clock News,' he says.

Greater business focus

Online business services, such as Breakingviews.com, have also gained a wider currency from associations with newspapers. And newspapers have become more focused on business.

'The standard of business reporting on papers such as the Daily Mail and the Mail On Sunday has become higher, and they break more business stories,' says Citigate Dewe Rogerson executive director Chris Barrie.

'If a client is due to make an announcement, you have to take more business media into consideration.'

Indeed, clients are beginning to wise up to the broad audience they will reach if they get their product or company onto the likes of BBC Radio 4's Today, News 24 or CNBC. 'To be successful, communications are far more important than ever before,' explains The Maitland Consultancy consultant William Clutterbuck.

'Companies are in an international environment, competing harder. If people don't care about you, they will be more wary of your products,' he adds.

Yet a company's communications culture may well affect how much coverage it achieves in the business pages. Boeing UK communications director Nick West argues that if a company is well known in the media, then getting onto the business pages is relatively simple, but if a company's only known to the press when it publishes results, it's far harder to get coverage at other times.

It depends, too, on how many competitors a company has. In the small to mid-cap sector, it is a considerably competitive environment when you consider there are about 2,000 AIM-listed companies, compared with the FTSE 100. A story with a key focus will be that much stronger than a competitor's.

Furthermore, the biggest challenge when communicating business news is companies' greater awareness of share price sensitivity. Fishburn Hedges financial services practice head Andrew Marshall argues that companies now have much stricter risk management structures in place than they may have done in the past.

'A marketing director may want to put out a press release that will support the company's sales but, increasingly, because of stock exchange regulations and a generally more litigious environment, companies' in-house lawyers may say: "We can't say that, we can't say it that way, we can't say it yet",' he claims. Careful planning, however, can ensure that communications are nevertheless attention-grabbing.

Furthermore, as business and technology gets more complex, PROs have to contend with a range of knowledge levels to ensure that messages are conveyed simply.

Journalists, on the other hand, view companies that lack transparency as a challenge and are often trying to strip through perceived spin. The delivery of an honest, clear, timely and compelling case is clearly what is required.

While press releases are still considered a key tool for targeting business journalists, there can be other equally useful ways of doing so.

'With some of the biggest stories I've worked on, I haven't written anything. It's all phone call briefings and away you go,' says West. He prefers dealing direct with journalists.

Yet using a mix of targeted press releases and briefing journalists in groups can work because they provide the opportunity to deal with different levels of knowledge, helping journalists to get to know a company.

Providing access

But it is the issue of access that cannot be emphasised enough. Journalists always want access to the chief executive. Press releases kick-start the process, but the chief executive puts the news into context.

While the range of business media expands and the world of business grows in complexity, clients will always want the same thing - to be regarded in the most favourable light by the media.

The media, meanwhile, will constantly be looking for a good story.

The job of PROs is to reconcile the two sides. The better you know your client and the more you know the journalists, the better your chances of success.

CLINTON MANNING - Business editor, Daily Mirror

Who reads the section? Readers span all regions, most ages and social classes.

What grabs your interest? Stories that affect readers' lives and quirky, off-beat ones.

When is it best to call? Late in the day, or 10-11am.

How can PROs help? By providing quick, simple, honest advice and developing relationships.

Which agencies or in-house PROs do you work with?

Relationships are key. It is more about people than agencies or departments.

JULIAN BAILEY - Editor, The Weekend Business, BBC Radio Five Live

Who listens? Professionals and people interested in sport and current affairs.

What is your timetable? I'm here Monday to Friday. The planning team works from Wednesday until the show on Sunday.

What will you air? Sexy big-business news. We like personalities and soap opera.

What should PROs know? That we want the most interesting, important UK business people. And that we're on at an awkward time.

ROBERT PESTON - City and assistant editor, The Sunday Telegraph

Why place a story in the section?

Top decision-makers read it. If PROs don't think it's a good place, they shouldn't be in PR.

What wouldn't you run? Stories that wouldn't make the dailies. Don't offer a scoop you couldn't place elsewhere.

How should PROs approach you? If it requires an immediate answer, ring. Otherwise, email.

What do you expect from them? The minimum is knowledge of the section.

JOHN ROSSANT - Europe editor, Business Week

What's different about you?

We're the only weekly international business news magazine.

What opportunities do PROs have?

We try to spot stories early. The right call from the right PRO at the right time can be effective.

When should they approach you? We close the magazine on Wednesdays.

What would you cover? Significant changes in company strategy; M&A activity.

I'm open to background interviews that won't necessarily produce a story, too.

BILL EMMOTT - Editor, The Economist

What differentiates you?

We're analytical rather than newsbreaking.

What's your circulation? 908,000 worldwide (ABC figures for July-December 2003).

What proportion of your stories come from PROs?

Less than five per cent. Access to people is often through PROs, but it's very rare that an idea or particular bit of news originates from them.

How can they help? By providing good access to senior executives, experts and reliable data as background.

WILL DREW - Editor, Black Collar Worker, Arena

Why the section? It reflects a central part of readers' lives - their work.

Why should financial PROs target it? Because their clients would benefit from association with black-collar workers - the ultimate target group.

What kind of business stories are Arena readers interested in? Offbeat, quirky success stories.

In which sectors are the PROs you work with? Drinks, travel, retail, catering, gaming, entertainment, and technology.

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