Keep this channel open

Access to top-level management is critical for journalists to deliver balanced reporting and to keep brand reputation intact. Steve Hemsley explains why ‘no comment’ is not an option

Mention the names of certain companies to journalists and many will respond with a loud groan as they recall the painful experience of trying to interview the people who run them.

EBay and Apple both rank highly with journalists as having directors who are incredibly difficult to pin down. This is despite each having a small army of press officers who are supposed to liaise between journalists and the top brass.

When eBay was criticised for auctioning Live8 tickets and attacked by cricket bosses for allowing people to buy Ashes tickets online, its response was short, bland press statements and a refusal to make anyone available for interview, despite recently employing
Seventy Seven as its PR agency.

'It's not just big high-street names,' sighs The Sun business editor Ian King. 'The investment banks can also be very sniffy. I
remember a colleague of mine going to work at Goldman Sachs' press office on a colossal salary and joking that he was going to be paid thousands just to say "no comment".'

However, saying 'no' to legitimate requests – especially if journalists view the PRO as an interview facilitator – can come back to haunt you, warns King. 'Companies should learn from Marks & Spencer, which was very aloof during its 1990s heyday,' he says. 'So when the downturn came, it discovered it had no goodwill from anyone.'

So who is to blame for breakdowns in communication – the management or the PROs they are instructing? A CEO's reticence to speak up can be fuelled by a combination of factors. They may feel restricted in what they can say due to the competitive nature of their industry, such as in IT or grocery retailing.

Or the legal and regulatory environment in which they work can make them excessively nervous. Alternatively, they may have developed a mistrust of the media over many years or gained a dislike based on a bad experience with a particular journalist.

Keep information flowing
'Having represented Microsoft for more than a decade I know only too well what it feels like to work for a company that feels it is being vilified in the press for its success,' says Sophie Brooks, joint managing director at August.One Communications. 'Microsoft learned very early that it could not beat the media through an information close-down. The void brought on by any lack of information is quickly filled with something else from one of your critics.'

Microsoft's strategy was to gain as much control as possible over coverage by filling the media with quotes from its own spokespeople.
Brooks suggests Tesco may have to follow a similar line of attack as journalists attempt to find its Achilles' heel.

Of course, PR is more than just media relations, so it is not necessarily unsound practice for a company to allocate a PR budget but not talk to the press. The brief may be to keep the company out of the media, or a client might have identified only a handful of
target titles it wants to appear in.

Seventy Seven director Marc Moninski says different companies have different needs. 'Clients use their PR agency for everything from organising events to strategic market positioning, as well as media relations,' he says. 'We act as a broker between the journalist and client but our loyalty is to the client.'

Former Financial Times and Sunday Telegraph journalist Richard Rivlin, who now runs training company Bladonmore, says some firms now have a deliberate strategy of media silence. 'There is a mystique around those who say nothing. Google built its reputation on never advertising and saying very little to the press, yet it created a frenzy of interest,' he says. 'This does not mean it was not saying plenty to existing and potential investors.'

Nevertheless, he strongly feels there is a role for agency PROs to educate their clients about why they should avoid making enemies of journalists they may need at a later date. He argues that a PRO's role is to guide a client through the process with media training and should start any nervous director with the trade press, whose reporters may be more sympathetic than those at the nationals.

'If a company is too evasive it can get a reputation among journalists on its target list,' adds Annabel Hillary, joint managing director of Brave PR. 'And they may think it is the PR agency putting up the barriers.'

There is always a risk that PROs will be blamed for a client's hostility towards the media. Reporters may see the PRO as an obstruction and go directly to a company to stand up a story. This can put a strain on the agency/client relationship if the managing director's PA is fielding unwanted calls.

One prominent businessman who refuses all requests for press interviews is the chairman of the Radisson Edwardian chain,
Jasminder Singh. His PR man is George Anthoulakis, senior account director at Mason Williams PR, who says a PRO can avoid damage to his or her reputation if the media enquiry is handled correctly.

Striking a balance
'There will always be one client who may not feel comfortable with the whole process of doing interviews and who prefers media attention to focus on his brand or other people within the organisation,' he says. 'As long as the PRO is honest, explains why the client prefers not to be interviewed, and still helps the journalist with the story, then the relationship should not be in jeopardy.'

Nevertheless, journalists wish PROs would try harder to get their clients to comment directly, or at least avoid making them get responses to questions cleared first.

'Businesses that do not want to talk themselves should at least empower their press office to speak on behalf of the boss there and then. PROs sometimes think they can provide a journalist with all the information they need but they often fail to understand the readership or audience so vital points can be missed,' says James Coney, personal finance reporter at the Daily Mail's MoneyMail.

It is often US clients who cause the UK media the most exasperation because they are not accustomed to journalists demanding more than a short press statement issued on a newswire or a PowerPoint presentation at a press briefing. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act (US regulations covering corporate disclosure) has made many US companies even more cautious.

'Lawyers are increasingly getting involved in media relations to ensure anything that is said is in the company's comfort zone. I have to explain to my US clients that PR does not stand for press release and they do have to be more flexible,' says Spreckley Partners managing director Richard Merrin.

PROs working with clients that are shy about talking to the media face a difficult job because journalists will always find such a policy infuriating. The skill is to manage the expectations of both sides to ensure the client's needs are met while the agency's relationship with the media remains intact.

Freemasons – not so secret after all
While some companies try to avoid media coverage there are others that are perceived as elusive but in fact are very accommodating.

The reputation of freemasons for secrecy dates back to the Second World War in Germany when Hitler's persecution of masons drove the organisation underground. In those uncertain times, English lodges, too, went to ground.

In recent years, however, the United Grand Lodge of England has a record of never refusing an interview request, and it is desperate to talk more about masons' work in the community, the targeting of younger recruits and the multi-cultural nature of its members. The only media request it still declines is to film a ceremony.

The freemasons appointed One boss Mike Dewar (formerly of MDA Communications) to handle its PR four years ago 'There were misconceptions among journalists about what went on and a mistaken view among some members that the media were against the organisation,' he says. 'We have had to challenge these misconceptions and coverage has been generally positive or neutral in all the nationals except the Daily Mirror.'

The Grand Lodge director of comms John Hamil says the task now is to keep the media interested: 'We have succeeded in explaining who we are and the work we do. The hardest thing is to keep coming up with new PR angles.'

Unisys – Emerging from the shadows
Four years ago, US technology business Unisys was largely perceived in this country as an anonymous company, lacking personality because bosses across the pond failed to understand the UK media landscape.

Unisys's failure to generate media contacts meant most coverage focused on the financial difficulties of the company, while knowledge among journalists of what Unisys actually did and what its messages were was limited.

Agency Cohn & Wolfe was appointed in 2001 to help educate executives in the US about the need to be more open with journalists here and across Europe. The agency's strategy was to identify just three spokespeople and to arrange face-to-face meetings with ten target technology and business writers, from the FT to The Times.
The three senior Unisys executives chosen attended Cohn & Wolfe's Guru Media Training course where they learned how to provide storylines and why it is important that they are available to comment on market trends.

'There has been a lot of education over the past couple of years and when the heads of communications in the US come over we ensure they get to meet journalists and appreciate what the media's needs are,' says Cohn & Wolfe director Susanna Davidson. 'For example, Unisys UK's managing director was featured in The Times talking about business travel. We had to explain to US execs why it is important from a PR perspective that the company comments on wider topics.'

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