Press Relations: Mind your business

City journalists will only give time to PROs with a sophisticated approach to relationship building and newsworthy clients, says Steve Hemsley.

There is a joke going around City journalists that the financial PR cricket team - which some of them will play next month - has a bowling problem. Apparently there are too many spinners. The joke may be bad but the game (hatched by Financial Dynamics senior V-P James Melville-Ross and The Sunday Telegraph City reporter Andrew Murray-Watson) shows how one journalist is dealing with an agency's 'meet for lunch' calls.

According to Murray-Watson, traditional City media relations is becoming increasingly stressful. PROs are asking for more of journalists' time, a precious commodity in the world of 24-hour rolling news. The traditional long lunch, where associations between PROs and reporters have, in the past, tended to be forged, is becoming less popular among the latter.

Different times

'I don't have time for lunch with PROs these days, although I still get a huge number of invites,' reveals The Times business and City editor Patience Wheatcroft. 'I do lunch with business people such as bankers but even these are never long lunches.'

It is unlikely we will ever return to the days when the late Lord Hanson wooed influential journalists for hours at Harry's Bar and the Savoy Grill.

But does this mean media relations for these journalists is over?

The Sun City editor Ian King says he usually only gets out of his office on a Friday. 'A PRO must make it worthwhile for me to do lunch, and that usually means bringing a CEO,' he says. 'Good City PROs put me in touch with the people I need to speak to, while the bad ones are a pain in the arse and have obviously never read my page.'

Richard Rivlin left the Financial Times to form financial PR and journalism training firm Bladonmore. During his time on The Sunday Telegraph City desk in the 1990s, he was rarely seen in the office before a Thursday afternoon. 'We tell the PROs and journalists we train that they must have a grown-up relationship that allows for schmoozing on one side and jousting for stories on the other,' he says.

Indeed, PROs must be aware of how different papers cover corporate stories if they are to have the kind of close associations with key journalists that their clients demand.

Meanwhile, increased regulation has put added strain on how journalists view City PROs, and editors have begun to blame the PR industry for what they see as growing paranoia among clients.

For instance, the European Market Abuse Directive is designed to ensure a proper flow of financial information to investors. City journalists fear it will curtail their exclusives because company lawyers will insist on sensitive information being published formally - on the company website or through an official press statement - rather than via a media leak.

'Some PROs will try and mislead you because they are scared of information leaking out. If I ring up about a merger that I understand is being announced the next morning, some will lie about it, whereas before I would have got the nod,' says one City editor.

Despite their grumbles, most business journalists understand the need to work with the PROs who can guide them on what corporations are likely to do next. 'PROs are not a substitute for talking to the people who run the company or for knowing everyone who may contribute to getting a fuller picture of what's going on, such as bankers and shareholders,' says Mail on Sunday financial correspondent Jon Rees. 'But they are an important part of the mix and a useful additional source of information.'

His views are echoed by The Daily Telegraph media business and telecoms correspondent Dominic White: 'A good financial PRO is worth his weight in gold and will understand what you need. Some senior City PROs are in the boardrooms and well connected, so it is worth meeting them face-to-face. You learn from experience whether to trust your source if you feel the PRO is trying to steer you away from a good story.'

Of course, all journalists will meet a financial PRO and a client for lunch if there is a strong story to tell. 'Some PROs argue we could not get our papers out without them. They probably have a point, and a good relationship with the right PR people can still land an exclusive or that big interview,' says The Independent media editor Ian Burrell. 'There are slick operators who only call when they can come up with the goods - these are the ones who can still tempt you to lunch.'

So how much time should be spent on trying to court national business journalists? PROs obviously still value the relationships they have built up over time because they are extremely reluctant to reveal examples of the City stories that have been broken with their help.

Citigate Dewe Rogerson financial group managing director Patrick Donovan says trust and credibility are everything in this market. 'For journalists to trust you they need to see you as a credible spokesman and, to a lesser extent, as an informal and knowledgeable source,' he says.

Those financial journalists who have switched to PR should be able to offer their former colleagues exactly what they need. Neil Bennett, former City editor of The Sunday Telegraph, now woos clients for The Maitland Consultancy, while Fleet Street veteran Allan Piper has 25 years' journalistic experience and now runs agency First City Financial PR.

'Using my background I can move in and ask a client awkward questions before a journalist does,' says Piper. 'Good financial PR works because experienced professionals understand how to identify a client's strengths to the press, and editors appreciate this too because they get a steady and beneficial flow of news.

'Lunch has become a bit of a ritual and journalists know it is not always necessary these days.'

Of course, this will not apply when the two sides meet on 7 August, because cricket would not be cricket without a spot of lunch. However, expect some heated discussions over the cucumber sandwiches.


James Coney, personal finance reporter, MoneyMail

'It is important to meet people face-to-face so lunches are still useful. Sometimes you will get a good story out of them and sometimes not, but being able to sit down with a PR company, with or without its clients, for an hour or so is a vital part of relationship building. The best PROs in this market are the ones who know the real meaning of the word "exclusive".'


Paul Murphy, financial editor, The Guardian

'Following the introduction of the Market Abuse Directive the role of the financial PRO is redundant from where we sit. We used to have a trading relationship where we would offer "soft favours" on how we wrote some stories in return for favours on other stories. The PRO would sit in the middle as a kind of broker. Now PROs are just an extension of the client so we might as well talk to the company directly.'



Invited journalists from influential business title Management Today to a brainstorming session at our offices, with managing director Colette Hill and the account team working with DDI (our HR consultancy client). The meeting identified award sponsorship opportunities.


Useful one-to-one briefing with a Financial Times employment correspondent at the offices of our client, The Employers' Forum on Age. The EFA has produced research into age issues at work - the story was offered as an exclusive and an article appeared in March on page three of the main paper.


Lunch with editor of The Times' Careers supplement, CHA director Rebecca Jones and senior account executive Tracey Young to discuss our client, PPC Worldwide (a stress consultancy) and the need to create a healthy workplace. It generated a half-page exclusive in the supplement.


Young arranged a roundtable debate with chartered accountancy Moore Stephens, and other accountants, for the personal finance editor of a weekend broadsheet. The venue was The Bleeding Heart restaurant in the City, popular with lawyers, accountants and merchant bankers.


Lunch with deputy news editor of a weekend broadsheet at a small restaurant. Account manager Kate O'Nions and senior account manager Simon Palmer updated the journalist on all our clients, including HR consultancy Chiumento. He asked us to send him any quirky stories for use as fillers.

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