It cannot have been an easy month for Daily Express editor Peter Hill. In late March, the tabloid took the unprecedented step of apologising to the McCann family on its front page after it had run a spate of stories alleging Kate and Gerry McCann were involved in daughter Madeleine's disappearance.
NUJ president Michelle Stanistreet, The Express's union representative, slammed the paper, claiming it put 'opportunities to boost circulation ahead of journalistic integrity'.
As a result of the McCann embarrassment, Hill's role as commissioner of the Press Complaints Commission has been called into question, with chairman Sir Christopher Meyer admitting the position is up for review.
Then, as if Hill did not have enough trouble on his hands, his staffers in London and Preston staged the first full-day national newspaper strike in 18 years. The 4 April walk-out was the first of three pickets intended to draw attention to journalists' pay.
In mid-April, medical group Parexel threatened to sue the Express and its sister Sunday title over the papers' allegations that it botched some medical trials.
PROs have been left wondering whether the Express should still be a target for client pitches, or whether its reputation is tarnished beyond repair. Waggener Edstrom technology head Kirsty Leighton is unflinching in her criticism of the title.
'The paper's strapline of "The World's Greatest Newspaper" is a source of continued amusement among industry insiders,' she says. 'Editorial decisions are driven by marketing. It became a given in the Express newsroom that there would be a Madeleine McCann or Princess Diana story on the front page every day.'
Chatsworth Communications director Nick Murray-Leslie agrees that the Express's coverage of the McCann case has damaged its reputation. But he does not think the paper should be singled out. 'Can the other middle-market and tabloid titles honestly say they were not following a similar tack?' he asks.
'There was a feeding frenzy all over that story. Take a look back over that period and see how many front pages were spurious, to say the least. The reputation of the Express has been damaged but that won't last.'
Some PROs find the Express an invaluable outlet for targeting the lower-middle class demographic. Eulogy account director Louisa Osmond successfully pitched a story to features editor Fergus Kelly on behalf of client the Royal Mail, on the new Home Moves postal redirection service.
'We chose the Daily Express because its core readers are 65-plus, and ABC1, veering towards C,' says Osmond. 'Will the McCann apology damage its reputation? I believe it's a valuable paper regardless, if only for the huge number of people it reaches.'
That number, however, is falling steadily. Figures published by the Audit Bureau of Circulations in March saw the Daily Express's circulation down 2.3 per cent year on year, with its sister weekend title the Sunday Express down 11.7 per cent, well below the average 3.9 per cent drop for Sunday newspapers. That said, the Express reaches more readers daily than The Guardian and The Independent combined.
Despite its fall in popularity, the newspaper impresses PROs with the professionalism of its news team. 'We speak to the team fairly often and find them approachable,' says Murray-Leslie. 'They work hard and knock out a decent paper. The Daily Mail needs some competition in the mid-market space.'
Red Signal PR's Susan Blair found the Express team receptive even to her most unusual idea, involving an April Fool's Day story on behalf of LED lighting client Polycomp.
Blair approached news editor Greg Swift with a story on Big Ben's clock being replaced with a digital watch. 'It was extremely quick,' says Blair. 'He ran it past the editor and emailed back within two hours.'
Blair adds that her reason for approaching the Express was entirely down to her client's enthusiasm for the paper, perhaps showing its reputation has not been tarnished in all quarters. 'It was the first paper we approached,' she says. 'The Express was what our client was looking for.'
Frequency: Weekdays, plus sister Sunday title
Readership: 731,763 in March 2008 (Audit Bureau of Circulations)
Deadlines: Daily news meeting at 11.15am
News editor - Greg Swift email@example.com, 0871 520 2982
Showbiz editor - Elisa Roche firstname.lastname@example.org, 0871 520 7377
Health editor - Victoria Fletcher email@example.com, 0871 434 1010
TWO MINUTES WITH THE EDITOR
Peter Hill, editor, Daily Express
What is the Daily Express' editorial strategy?
The Daily Express speaks for all decent, hard-working people in this country. We crusade for what we believe in, and we have been very successful.
Our crusade on inheritance tax persuaded the Conservative Party to change its stance and promise that only millionaires would pay the tax. That in turn drove the Government to make an embarrassing u-turn and cut the tax. We scored another big success in our crusade for justice on behalf of the Gurkhas.
What is your advice for PROs approaching the Express?
Come with a proper story and you will get a hearing. Feed us rubbish and it will go in the bin.
I've no time for PROs who just want to use us. It's a two-way street. I almost always hate so-called 'media partnerships' because there is no benefit to the newspaper and an expectation of yards of free positive publicity on the other side. I do have valuable long-term relationships with a small number of PROs and lobby contacts, but I would not dream of naming them.
Do you think the Express's reputation has suffered since the McCann apology?
I don't want to comment on the McCann case.