At London-based agency Golin Harris, joint managing director Matt Neale's first job of the morning is to oversee the 'truth squad'. This quirky moniker is applied to the staff selected to come in early and scan the morning's national and regional press and main online news sites. The process enables the agency to spot claims made about its clients early and gives it extra time to devise an appropriate response.
Golin Harris is not unusual in this; the morning media skim is daily ritual for most PROs. But this type of media monitoring need not be merely reactive. A more systematic approach can be used to adapt content for individual journalists. Having an accurate record of journalists' output means it is far easier to identify news hooks or angles that they favour.
Neale says his team's analysis includes a breakdown both of companies generating coverage as 'thought leaders' on particular issues and journalists who may be sympathetic to the views of clients. The practice is a step towards a more tailored PR strategy - one which should ensure that GH's press releases are not dragged straight into the wastebasket.
At consultancy Whiteoaks, client teams now include a 'media seller' whose job is to track industry news and use specific sales skills to promote clients' news and views to the relevant media. A crucial part of the job spec is a thorough knowledge of a journalist's work and editorial preferences.
Chairman and co-founder of Whiteoaks Bill Nichols argues that editorial targeting is about increasing the quality of hits from press releases, not the quantity. 'Far better for us to have one great hit than have three poor ones,' he says.
Many PROs might say they already build a mental picture of specific writers' gripes or an accumulated knowledge of issues to which they are more receptive. But the monitoring approach allows Whiteoaks to keep future news releases fresh and possibly extend the life of a story. It also ensures they can spend more productive time nurturing interested journalists, and that any angle used in a press release is different from one sent out by a competitor maybe a few weeks or months before.
Close media scrutiny is crucial in assessing not just where a story was reported but how. Alex Barnett, media relations officer at high-street bank the Halifax, explains: 'With seasonal stories we look at how particular media owners covered them in previous years. We will also benchmark how we performed against our competitors around certain issues last time so we know where we must improve, especially if it appears a particular journalist has a stronger relationship with one of our rivals.'
MD of Precise Media Monitoring Keir Fawcus cites client Vodafone as a regular user of its monitoring services. The mobile phone firm likes to identifies journalistic trends around stories that could potentially lead to negative coverage, such as 'happy slapping' or radiation fears. Fawcus says: 'Monitoring isn't just to compile cuttings, but to see which journalists might benefit from receiving more information about an issue.'
Pressure on budgets
Proactive media monitoring is particularly helpful for PROs in the voluntary sector, where teams are under immense pressure to justify every penny they spend. David Barker, head of comms at the British Heart Foundation, says his department analyses around 12,000 pieces of media coverage every year to assess how successful the BHF has been in conveying its message to different segments of the press.
'We do a lot of work around anti-smoking, but journalists can feel as if they've seen it all before,' he admits. 'So our online team now sits next to the press office and monitors what is being written on, for example, a number of influential blogs.'
To hone their monitoring strategies PROs must be able to react quickly to coverage both in traditional media and online, especially if journalists are looking for new angles on breaking stories.
'Nowadays stories tend to break online and are analysed in print, so the media monitoring now has hourly imperatives rather than a daily or weekly focus,' says CIPR chairman-elect and Carrot Communications MD Richard Houghton.
The level of coverage and the tone of an article can often depend on the relationship a PRO and his or her client has with a particular journalist, and the strength of this rapport should be monitored as closely as the number of column inches produced.
Monitoring company Thomson Intermedia provides some revealing insights into how specific journalists view a company. Its editorial monitoring system uses a tracking tool to gauge the tone of every article it evaluates and it reports on how a company's reputation within a particular publication has changed over time and how individual reporters are treating a particular brand or issue.
'We create a home page for our clients displaying the most recent articles with headlines and a score alongside each one. A PRO can look at 12 related articles written by each journalist,' says Thomson Intermedia strategy and marketing director Calum Chace. 'It points out which journalists PROs need to be won over and who would be good candidates to meet a client's MD to clarify their perceptions of the company.'
Certainly PROs should not be afraid to remind journalists about what they have written in the past if it helps prompt further coverage.
When Friends Reunited celebrated its fifth birthday last year, the PR team trawled through previous cuttings by particular writers and sent each of them a press pack containing examples of their old work. Head of PR Carolynne Bull-Edwards says: 'Journalists may have a certain perception of a brand, so to see their articles in one batch like this was quite compelling. They welcomed this personal touch.'
Ellie Springett, head of corporate and public affairs at the Energy Savings Trust, argues that PROs can get closer to journalists with a thorough grounding in their work. 'We have key commentators, such as Jonathan Moules at the Financial Times and Amanda Brown at Public Affairs magazine that we carefully target. But to do so we find out what each has written as a way of giving them new material.' Springett has also been highly successful in identifying forthcoming issues and 'piggybacking' them (see box), such as the recent tax rise on 4x4 cars in the Budget.
The Times Online's new deputy editor Parminder Bahra agrees that accurate anticipation of the news agenda is a skill much appreciated by journalists.
'We need to base our decisions not only on what we have written before but on the timing of any follow-up article,' he says. 'I try to keep up to speed by reading relevant publications, especially the trade press, but if being listed with monitoring companies means PROs pitch more appropriate stories and have a better understanding of the information I want, then these lists are a good thing - as long as they are used responsibly.'
The position a journalist holds at a newspaper, magazine or broadcaster can also dictate how he or she uses media monitoring services, if at all.
Crime correspondent on The Sun, Mike Sullivan, needs to know the progress of particular cases and when they will be heard in court. He also has access to monitoring firm Factiva and will scan the News International editorial library. 'Crime is different from entertainment or business news where old stories get rehashed by PR people finding new angles. Crime news is a fast-moving beast and when a story breaks, whether a robbery or a murder, you tend to have tunnel vision because everything is so intense,' he says.
And some sectors, such as women's magazines, will have a naturally seasonal cycle of features, so PROs can turn this to their advantage by monitoring which angles have been covered before by specific magazines.
Kathryn Bingham, health editor of women's weekly Bella, says the magazine's editorial team does not have its own archive system and admits she relies - as best she can - on her own instinct and memory when deciding if a story has been covered too much.
'As a rule I don't return to topics on conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome or migraines and seasonal stuff like hayfever or skin cancer within a year unless there has been a major development in the field,' she says. 'But some subjects, such as breast cancer, infertility or pregnancy, do appear frequently, and it is vital we make sure our angles don't overlap with other titles.'
Effective monitoring of avenues that have already been explored can also save PROs time and effort when trying to kick-start a story that may be flagging. For example, the PR strategy could be refocused, perhaps with a more aggressive approach to the trade press where a topic is still being debated.
This strategy is employed regularly by Robson Brown PR in Newcastle for its client Croner, a business information company advising bosses on changes in employment regulation. It initially commented in the national press on Lord Turner's recommendations that employees should have to opt in to company pension schemes with the angle that many small businesses could not afford such schemes. When the story dropped off the dailies' radar, Robson Brown took Croner's message to various B2B titles.
Coverage appeared in HR magazines Personnel Today and HR Express Scotland, as well as broader business titles including Hotel Business, Retail Express, and website bytestart.co.uk.
For smaller PR agencies, maybe those run by one or two people, justifying investment in media monitoring can be difficult, even if the owners do appreciate the arguments for using these services more strategically. Ultimately there is a balance to be struck between the costs involved and the size and profile of the agency's clients.
'For smaller clients there is rarely daily blanket coverage, hence media monitoring becomes redundant,' says Rassami Hok Ljungberg, an independent corporate communications consultant. 'But when it comes to planning activity, there is nothing that can replace the actual reading of the newspapers and relevant trade press to
inspire new ideas from seemingly unrelated articles.'
If an in-house or agency PR team does decide to pay for a number of media monitoring services it is important to maximise their use, not only when evaluating and planning activity or getting a better understanding of particular journalists' needs, but also when pitching for new business.
CirKle Communications managing director Caroline Kinsey says reading the press every day is usually enough to keep her abreast of what is happening with her clients day-to-day, but she will spend more on media monitoring when preparing for a pitch.
'Pitches require a lot of background thinking. We would use the results of any monitoring to identify experts in a particular field whose knowledge we could tap into as well as discovering which journalists the potential client is and should be working with,' she says.
There are various monitoring services to choose from (see box) and all will allow PROs to do a media sweep to discover which issues surround a prospective new client. This is also useful in determining how that brand is performing in the media against its competitors in terms of share of voice, and will reveal if there are any crisis management scenarios the pitching team needs to be aware of.
The PR industry is a demanding master when it comes to monitoring. A survey by the Slipstream Group recently revealed that only 20 per cent of users were 'very satisfied' with their services. But in the era of 24-hour news, where clients need PROs to respond quickly and strategically to editorial coverage, demand for high standards is fully justified and only the most rigorous media monitors will prevail.
THE MEDIA MONITORS
TNS MEDIA INTELLIGENCE
Products: TNS covers 3,000 press titles, 350 radio and television companies, five million websites and message boards. New products include Global Media Digest, an international press and broadcast digest on any subject, translated into English within 24 hours. Also, Media Impact Barometer which measures media impact noise? over a period of time on a given spokesperson or media issue.
How often updated: Press and broadcast information is delivered the same day with broadcast alerts available in real time. Regional titles and international coverage can be delivered electronically within 24 hours.
Cost: From £300 a month
Products: Factiva.com is a Dow Jones and Reuters company and collects information from more than 10,000 sources including The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and various newswires. Factiva Insight Reputation Intelligence monitors four million blogs and 11,000 websites and is a finalist in the US PRWeek Awards 2006 in the PR Innovation of the Year category.
How often updated: Data from 120 newswires is updated every few minutes.
Cost: A pay-as-you-go option enables users to purchase individual articles with a credit card. Subscription services are also available.
Products: Romeike monitors around 50,000 print, broadcast and online media outlets around the world. It has developed CommSource which is an integrated online solution including media monitoring, media contacts, evaluation and news distribution to help PROs plan their campaigns and media strategy. Romeike also has the Monitor Online portal which allows PROs to share information between offices and countries.
How often updated: Monitor Online, daily; CommSource, 'continuously'.
Cost: Pricing for CommSource is based on a client's needs. Subscription costs for Monitor Online start at £11.50 per month with additional costs based on the number of articles and countries being searched.
GOOGLE NEW FEEDS
Products: Google News gathers stories from more than 4,500 English-language news sources worldwide and arranges them to present the most relevant news first. Users can receive news feeds on a range of topics from business and health to science and technology, featuring articles that have appeared within the past 30 days.
How often updated? Every 15 minutes.
DURRANTS PRESS CUTTINGS
Products: Durrants monitors more than 4,000 UK publications, thousands of website and newswires and selected broadcasters. A team of 200 editors add value including client-defined sorting, summarising and analysis. The company also monitors and translates international coverage from 100 countries. Coverage from the national press is delivered from 4am.
How often updated: Daily from 6.30am.
Cost: Bespoke service for clients and quotes on request depending on the brief.
Products: Magenta News' is an electronic media monitoring company with more than 4,000 clients. It searches more than 14bn matches daily. Magenta News Basic solution provides an overview of product and corporate mentions for clients and their competitors. Magenta News Statistics measures all electronic media mentions and measures the coverage of distributed press releases. Magenta News Feed automatically distributes relevant news to a client's home page and their intranet. PR subscribers can supply sourced information directly to their clients.
How often updated: The products look for new content every half a second.
Cost: subscribers pay £3,520 per 12 month period for unlimited search criteria and up to 10 users.
THE BLOG MONITORS
In March, Edelman rallied a team of bloggers to combat media attacks against its client, retailer Wal-Mart. The initiative, which involved feeding bloggers snippets of company information, demonstrated how monitoring blogs and responding quickly is becoming an essential skill for PROs.
There are estimated to be more than 28 million blogs on the internet, most of which are personal and opinionated, yet it is important to be aware of what is being written. A survey by Pew Internet Study estimates that 11 per cent of internet users are regular blog readers.
With the help of specific search engines such as Technorati, Intelliseek and blogpulse, the task of monitoring blogs is thankfully getting easier. Technorati, which claims 70,000 new blogs launch every day, lets PROs search by keyword to discover which blogs around the world are mentioning their clients. Many PROs and journalists also subscribe to Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds, which provide summaries of influential blogs.
One of the best-known bloggers in the PR industry in the UK is Drew Benvie, account director at Lewis PR. He says clients are becoming increasingly worried about how they are being perceived on blogs. 'PROs must understand how blogs work and should build clusters of RSS feeds based on key words and industry sectors,' he says. 'Many stories that break in the mainstream media are being talked about on blogs the day before so being aware of what is happening can put a PRO at the front of the queue with journalists.'
How to Piggyback a story
The most common use of media monitoring is to piggyback another story by finding and exploiting your own angle. According to journalist and author Peter Bartram, the most common mistake PROs make is trying to promote a link that is too tenuous to stand up.
'Objective judgement is vital in deciding whether a story is worth piggybacking and, if it is, there must be genuine and robust relevance in the material you provide,' he says.
Bartram has written a book called How To Write The Perfect Press Release. He interviewed 89 editors who between them receive more than 19,000 press releases every week. For example,men's magazine Maxim's fashion desk claims that only one press release in every thousand makes it, while Steve Hughes, editor of Bolton Evening News, claims much of the information he is sent is not actually news at all.
Bartram says one of the most effective ways to piggyback a story is to use experts to validate the link. 'This person must have new information or provide insight which has so far been missing,' he says. Another method is to exploit the use of a client's product in a story. Maybe a celebrity has used an item, or a product was used during an important event.
'Journalists acknowledge PROs are under pressure to get client and in-house management in the media in a positive way, but this should mean PR teams are more creative when writing press releases,' he says. 'Often PROs react too late, after a story has already peaked. Forward planning is vital.'