Shying away from the camera when TV journalists ask your company to respond to accusations is, most would agree, not a great idea. Yet it is surprising how many corporations think they can dodge the media spotlight through non-appearance.
Why are some companies' attitudes to TV so at odds with best practice?
This was the question that kicked off a lively debate this month, hosted by web-based video distributor The NewsMarket.
A roundtable of senior broadcasters (see box) discussed how PROs could improve the reputation of their clients by changing their approach to television news.
'The broadcasting arena is certainly at its most interesting. Broadcasters have created the 24-hour news market by opening up more airtime to fill, and technology has helped them get pictures out quicker, such as footage taken by the public with mobile phones,' says moderator Jonathan French, media relations officer at the Association of British Insurers. 'TV channels' use of such material immediately after the 7 July bombings is a case in point.'
NewsMarket co-founder Anthony Hayward agrees that consumer demand for video is responsible for 'a huge part of the revolution in communications'. Reports last month that BSkyB was in talks with 3G mobile phone operators to offer live TV over their networks lend added weight to this claim.
Technological progress, he says, poses 'considerable challenges to the corporate comms profession – PROs must realise what these are to engage with broadcast media'.
So what are these challenges? The panellists agree that the biggest problem for PROs is keeping pace with broadcasters. 'It's down to corporations and the comms function to keep up with us, not the other way round,' argues Associated Press Television News executive director Nigel Baker. 'News organisations are driven by speed to air; it's how they compete. Viewers also expect video within minutes and this is going to be heightened by "citizen journalists".
Speed of getting a response to air if they want to have a voice is vital for large corporations.'
BBC News business correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones says although the flagship Ten O'Clock News commands audiences of up to five million – compared with 50,000-100,000 for 24-hour outlets – the latter have by their nature been able to set the news agenda.
'From the point of view of PROs, 24-hour news offers opportunities and threats,' adds Sky News associate editor Simon Bucks. 'I always strongly encourage people to get on 24-hour news as fast as they can, with people who know what they are doing, because if they don't, we could run the story anyway by talking to someone else. The opportunity is that we have more space to fill. We do a lot more live interviews than the Ten O'Clock News.'
Slow to change
Some have been slow to grasp these opportunities. The way PROs have approached broadcasting in the past 20 years has remained 'frighteningly unchanged', according to Cellan-Jones. 'What has stunned me is the lack of understanding among the corporations about the nature of TV. There still seems to be extraordinary ignorance about how it works, what's to be gained from it and what the dangers are.'
He blames this on the 'outsourcing' of the PR function: 'We are certainly under the impression that financial PR agencies in particular are frightened of TV and disinclined to advise their clients to use it.'
He cites the recent coverage surrounding Apple's iPod Nano – where some units were found to have defective screens – as an example. 'Apple, which is fantastically effective in comms in many ways, is a terrible firm to deal with in broadcast PR terms. It wouldn't give us any access [to senior Apple management], so I was left doorstepping people outside shops, listening to them mouthing off about the product.'
Flawedmusicplayer.com (the blog set up by disgruntled customer Matthew Peterson for fellow broken Nano owners to vent their spleen) is an example of how the internet can generate consumer power, adds Cellan-Jones. What Apple could and should have done, he says, was admit to the problem on air.
Bucks agrees: 'An awful lot of PROs don't understand what we do and the way we work. A lot of it is because people who work in PR haven't worked in journalism. Sometimes they don't take an interest in what we do. Sometimes they don't even know what we are putting out.'
What does Bucks advise? 'Find out what the decision-making process is. When are the meetings? Who is at them? What is the process by which a story might or might not get done? That gives you so much more fire power when it comes to getting your product on air when the news is positive and reacting when it's negative.'
City University head of journalism and publishing Professor Adrian Monck says: 'If Number 10 was like a major corporation, Alastair Campbell would be a 28-year-old PRO working from home who couldn't get a call in to Tony Blair even if the country was being threatened by an intercontinental ballistic strike. That's the kind of relationship a lot of communications people have [with their bosses]. Corporations have got to own up to the fact that communications is part of the product. Communicating to investors, stakeholders and consumers is part of what they're about and that means decision-making access at the highest level.
'If you want decent communications advice, you need to have decent communicators, and you need to put them in boardrooms and meetings and keep them close.'
Bucks asserts that many senior executives are simply 'pig-headed', thinking they know best when it comes to communicating with the media and that they do not need advice from PROs. In reality, he says, while some senior executives are better than others at being on camera, the poor ones are not learning. 'There is no doubt that more and more business people understand TV is a very important part of the way people get news, but there's more news around, so they've had to,' he says. 'The days of being able to get away with a mention in the Financial Times are probably in the past. But there are still people who think they're good when they're not, and people who fight shy of appearing on TV.'
The panel cite Blair, easyJet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou and Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary as skilled broadcast communicators.
According to Cellan-Jones, the other end of the scale belongs to UK
banks. 'Too often they appear defensive and are slow in responding. They would generally rather run and hide than be on the TV,' he says. 'Every time there is a major issue in the banking world, they try and put up the British Banking Association.'
So what would the panel like to see more of from corporations and agencies when dealing with the media? The panellists put forward a number of tips for dealing with broadcasters directly (see box, p29). But other approaches can also be helpful. Video News Releases – material filmed by companies or their agencies – is a hot topic for
the panellists: broadcasters remain sceptical. 'We will use a VNR if it's something we couldn't otherwise get,' says Bucks. 'But we'll look at it pretty carefully. Don't be tempted – if you're shooting a production process, for example – to shoot it in such a way that the name "Bird's Eye" is in your face. You have to shoot it so it looks like genuine news footage.'
Cellan-Jones is more guarded. 'Our policy is that we absolutely won't use VNR material... except when we need to,' he says, provoking a ripple of mirth. 'If we had no chance of getting into a factory, for example, we'd use one. But we would always rather have access.'
They are even less keen on pre-recorded interviews, preferring to ask their own questions. 'We are quite keen if you want to hire, say, a Reuters truck for the day and you can have your top bod on offer for all of us,' says Bucks. 'We don't mind doing that, but we ask the questions and we maintain editorial control.'
VNR also needs to be good television. 'It sounds obvious, but the key to getting your message across is visual impact,' says Baker. 'The number of corporations that think providing an interview is covering the story for television is legion. But if you've got a staggering image, the chances of it getting on are very high. People may have high-minded views about using VNRs, but if the pictures are unusual or strong enough, the story gets onto TV around the world.'
Ultimately, it boils down to control, argues Monck. And broadcasters will use pre-recorded interviews if that is all they can get: 'You might say "we wouldn't broadcast a chief executive talking to an in-house TV company", but what about Alex Ferguson on MUTV? It's all about power, access and control. If you need them, you'll get them, even if they're talking to some guy who's on the floor begging for information.'
Monck suggests businesses take a leaf out of Formula One's book: 'For years, Formula One has made people available. It knows everything about positioning the logo so it's not too in your face, making sure the right baseball cap is worn in the right market. What's amazing is that this level of detail hasn't switched over to business, and that business isn't really bothered.'
But the journalists are unequivocal about whether they want closer ties with companies. 'We have to understand each other better,' says Reuters consumer television global editor John Mastrini.
'We have to understand why PROs are turning more and more to VNRs.
Is it because it's easy to do, because of technology or to control access?
And we need to make them understand that it won't be as good a story, and it won't be as useful for us as an organisation or for our audience, if it is not authentic.'
Cellan-Jones agrees. 'We always want a closer connection. That doesn't mean we will have shared interests. We just might understand each other better. My job is different from that of a
director of comms or a CEO, but the important thing is to be able to understand each other's language.'
Having personal relationships with companies does not prevent journalists being objective, he says. 'It's up to you as a journalist to exercise judgement. You want as close a relationship as you can get with a company or individual that's going to be the basis of a story.'
There is no evidence, says Bucks, that PROs favour a particular broadcaster, although it is 'human nature' for them to prefer individual correspondents. Journalists, conversely, will have regular contacts to whom they turn with specific issues because they know those contacts 'deliver' and 'it saves time and effort'.
No holds barred
On the accusation that journalists have no qualms about giving companies a good kicking, Cellan-Jones responds: 'Our job is to tell it like it is. If a company cocks up, that's its issue.'
Do journalists ever go too far? 'It's entirely possible that some journalists do get things wrong,' says Bucks. 'But when they do, they usually pay the price. Look at what happened to Piers Morgan. I am not saying companies don't pay the price. We all saw what happened to Enron. But we do have a vigorous, free media that are robust in covering the news. When they do get things wrong they are exposed and punished. That, I think, is pretty healthy.'
Monck adds: 'Reporters are under pressure to deliver stories, PROs are under pressure to deliver messages – both can cross the line. It takes confidence and integrity to keep to the straight and narrow. That's the challenge for both sides.'
But French stresses that PROs must take responsibility for their clients' attitude to the media. 'It's not a case of always seeking to criticise the media because they have simply reported something. You have to use your communications skills to mitigate the potentially damaging effects of a company's actions or external factors.'
French concludes that it is 'rare for a story, either print or broadcast, to precisely reflect what PR people want it to'. But he adds: 'It is the aim of both the media and the PR profession to ensure there is accurate reporting of the activities of organisations.'
the panellists (clockwise from top left) Rory Cellan-Jones, business correspondent, BBC News Joining the BBC in 1981 as a producer for Newsnight, Cellan-Jones became a business reporter in 1990 for The Money Programme and Working Lunch, later taking the role of business correspondent for TV news. In 2000 he accepted extra responsibility for internet news, and in 2001 published a book, Dot.bomb, on the dotcom crash.
Niger Baker, executive director, APTN
Baker joined Associated Press Television News in 1994 from Reuters. The agency supplies broadcasters, websites and mobile phone companies with news, sports and entertainment footage. He began his career in 1982 as a reporter and producer on Yorkshire TV's local news magazine programme Calendar.
Simon Bucks, associate editor, Sky News
Beginning his career at HTV West in Bristol in 1975 as a junior producer, Bucks moved to ITN as a producer in 1981, where he stayed for the next 13 years, editing all the main ITN bulletins, including News At Ten. After five years at London News Network and a brief spell as an independent consultant, he joined Sky News as executive producer of business news in 2000.
Anthony Hayward, co-founder/chairman, The NewsMarket
Hayward began his career as a photojournalist. In 1989 he set up Bulletin International, a broadcast PR consultancy based in London. He founded The NewsMarket in 2000.
John Mastrini, consumer TV global editor, Reuters
A former reporter, presenter and producer for US networks between 1984 and 1991, Mastrini has been Reuters' consumer television global editor since 2002. He is responsible for online, TV-over-internet protocol and mobile video content, as well as a joint venture to create Indian news channel TimesNow, which is set to launch by the end of this year.
Prof. Adrian Monck, head of journalism, City University
Monck was a broadcast journalist for CBS News from 1988-92, and for ITN from 1993-2004, where he launched Channel 5 News as managing editor. Before joining City University he was executive producer at Sky News. He helped pioneer undercover reporting for News At Ten and has covered conflicts in the Middle East and Bosnia.
Jonathan French, media relations officer, ABPI (moderator)
French joined Conservative Central Office as a press officer in 1998, becoming media manager. He was made press secretary to the then party chairman Michael Ancram in 2001, before joining the Ministry of Defence in 2002 as PR manager in the Army's directorate of corporate comms.
'Avoid 24-hour news channels. There are organisations such as Reuters that provide the depth of coverage you want. These allow audiences to watch a proper debate, not three-minute or five-minute chunks, or whatever the news channels want to give at a certain time. This avoids the situation where the anchor comes in and says suddenly "I'm sorry, we're out of time", just when it's getting exciting.'
'To get the best out of 24-hour news, make sure your chief executive is the person who is going to be talking. We don't like being fobbed off with the FD or head of marketing. We want the top people and we won't take less. Make sure they understand what they have to do. Television is a difficult medium. It requires people who have effective personalities, who are good at talking concisely, interestingly and humanly. If people come on and they're not very good, they don't get invited back unless they are extremely big hitters we can't resist. Those who are good on television do get invited back. Sir Richard Branson is a terrible talker, but he's quite good on TV because he has a warm personality. Understand the medium and understand its requirements.'
'I met a cameraman about ten years ago who said he'd been hired by Asda to go round the country and train every single store manager to appear on TV. This strategy worked fantastically for Asda and we regularly used it. The lesson for PROs is that if they can't provide a spokesperson who can explain the corporate message in 45 words, in English, they've failed. Too many chief executives don't speak English – they speak chief executive-ese.'