Analysis: Press offices weigh up the enemy

The Department of Health has disclosed details of the 'slant' taken by publications and reporters covering the NHS. Tom Williams examines how organisations track and respond to journalists deemed to be 'hostile'.

The Department of Health is watching the media intensely. Indeed it is estimated to have paid Millward Brown Precis £200,000 for the report National media coverage of public health issues and the NHS.

The study is particularly intriguing, because it lists 21 journalists who wrote on the NHS and public health issues over a whole month, and graded the impact of their articles as 'neutral', 'positive' and 'negative'.

Not only that, but the DoH has published the report on its website, inviting the full glare of media publicity. In addition, the Department for Transport told PRWeek it had hired the same market research agency to produce a similar report. The DfT was still deciding whether to publicise its findings among 17 transport correspondents as PRWeek went to press.

DoH head of communication research Alexia Clifford says its report was published 'as part of the department's wider commitment to Freedom of Information' and insists that the DoH and its local press offices do not use the grading system to mark out or ostracise difficult journalists. The information is to help the ministry 'prioritise resources in the media centre and to make sure we're speaking to everyone we need,' she says.

DfT chief press officer Scot Marchbank also insists that 'we don't rely on it to see what journalists think on various issues. It is just a snapshot and is not the most important part of the study.' But neither Marchbank nor Clifford seem able to explain why, if such information is so innocuous, they have included it in Millward Brown Precis's brief.

Niche issues

Is this a trend across Whitehall? The Department for Constitutional Affairs says its issues are too niche and covered by half a dozen specialist journalists.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport, on the other hand, is too big. It says tracking and grading everyone who writes about the DCMS's remit, stretching from the arts to the Olympics, would be complicated, expensive and ultimately redundant.

'Analysing coverage is good, but blacklists are dangerous,' warns Ketchum CEO David Gallagher. 'The Department of Health has said it won't use the analysis to punish anyone. But it will be interesting to see the report in its next iteration, and whether specific journalists appear to have suffered.'

But at least the DoH has been open about how it tracks media coverage.

It and other government agencies point out that the tracking and grading of journalists is widely practised in both the public and private sectors, though few will openly admit to doing this or explain how they use the information.

In June, Gilles Le Roch, president of the International Association of Cycling Journalists claimed that Bjarne Riis, manager of the CSC cycling team, had compiled a dossier labelling journalists as 'friends, neutral, difficult or dangerous.' The accusation brought a furious denial from CSC, which regarded claims that it had used such tactics as 'very serious and insulting'.

Nevertheless, the grading of journalists is often part of organisations' media evaluation techniques. The real issue is how the lists are used.

Sandra Macleod, CEO of Echo Research, which works for around a quarter of the FTSE 100, describes the use of such information to blacklist people as 'rare'. But she cites Echo's work for the Health Education Authority identifying media stigmatisation of an issue - in this case, mental health - as a more common tactic. 'This was more helpful overall than knowing who was simply for or against to get journalists to stop and think before they fall into knee-jerk reporting and continue a spiral of unhelpful stereotypes and prejudice,' she says.

Consolidated Communications board director Paul Davies is blunter about the advantages of tracking journalists. 'It is a useful, objective way of looking at who is conveying the right messages,' he says. 'But what studies like this can't beat is knowing a journalist's agenda. Before I pick up the phone, I will have done my due diligence by looking at what they have written in the past. You keep your friends close and do due diligence on your enemies,' he says.

FTSE 100 companies such as Vodafone and BAE Systems insist that they never think about any journalist as 'hostile', and while they monitor coverage, say they do not track and grade individual journalists.

'You need to understand editorial policy, the market in which the paper operates and issues like that', says Vodafone head of group media relations Bobby Leach. 'When you have the answer to those questions, rather than dwelling on a particular situation, you will have the answer to the problem.'

Know your enemy

Few companies will admit to the tactic of withdrawing co-operation from journalists, though some reporters know through personal experience that this option is exercised from time to time.

But as Leach suggests, there are often other ways around difficult journalists. 'There may be times when you pick up the phone with a heavy hand, but if all else fails you can always talk to another journalist who covers the same issue on the same publication,' Leach says.

Most PROs and companies say they will always advise persuasion, having identified a source of consistently hostile coverage. Such lists, as Marchbank says, may only really be useful in telling the PR department of an organisation how well they are doing their job.

Graham Goodwin, chief press officer of Transport for London, which has ruled out compiling such a study, argues that PR departments should really be exerting their energies elsewhere. 'Even if we find we are talking to a publication, that may take a hostile line, at least more intelligent readers will have the opportunity to see our point of view.'

None of the journalists identified in the DoH research could be reached for comment, but the implications for their work could be wide ranging.

The DoH and the DfT may yet use these studies to blacklist journalists or withdraw press office co-operation.

But it is difficult to see how demonising journalists and publications deemed to be instinctively unsympathetic can have a long-term future in a modern media environment.

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