NEWS ANALYSIS: The lost art of relationship building

The changing face of our industry has led to problematic working relationships and a lack of communication between PR professionals and journalists, according to a new report. David Quainton investigates.

The City
The City

The media are diversifying and fragmenting. This is the message any PR 101 course will give a willing student. Not only that, but the scope of PR is changing too, ever moving away from the bread-and-butter business of forging a decent relationship with journalists and giving them good stories.

But with a focus on new, digital PR (blogging, experiential work, viral marketing et al), is the art of building understanding with journalists being lost?

In the financial sector, where news in the form of company results, stock exchange announcements and general bulletins comes thick and fast, a survey by PressChoice says this may well be the case.

The 130 financial journalists polled in the report had five main beefs with their PR counterparts:

1 There are too many press releases - the average financial journalist apparently receives 430 a week.
2 PR staff are ill-informed, not knowing anything more about the story than what is written in the press release.
3 Over-hyped stories are undermining the credibility of the PR operation.
4 There is limited specific information on the company website.
5 PROs are often promising to return calls and then not doing so.

These may be age-old concerns, but as one national newspaper business editor says: ‘The shift in the volume of information being delivered, and the different ways in which it is being delivered, has made the already noticeable difference between a good PRO and a bad PRO all the more stark.'

Lack of quality
PR agencies and in-house departments often claim there is currently a dearth of quality mid-level talent in the industry, forcing them to pay top money and promoting a buoyant rec­ruitment market. But for the journalists, the problem is lower down the pecking order.

Most journalists suggested the senior staffers at financial agencies and financial institutions were as reliable as ever, but it was the junior staff that let them down.

With the explosion in comms staff in the financial sector over the past five years, where in-house teams have been expanding and agencies have been matching them in climbing up the PRWeek league tables, there are an increasing number of junior PROs more likely to make the mistakes detailed above.

According to PressChoice director of research Lauri Pastrone, what was most frustrating to journalists surveyed was that ‘internal press offices and PR agencies often don't know or read the publications they target'.

With so many junior PROs in the industry learning a plethora of new skills, the suggestion was that the necessity of knowing your ­audience is being lost.

The news is not all bad, though. As the graphs on this page show, financial hacks are generally pleased with the professionalism of the industry. Two thirds of them ranked press operations as ‘good' or ‘very good'.

Blocked comms channels
Another national business editor says that getting hold of a press officer is far easier than it was in the 1980s, but this also has a downside.

‘Unfortunately, PR teams can prevent you from getting to the CEO or the person involved in the story and this, though perhaps their job, can be frustrating,' he says.

With banks particularly unwilling to front-up announcements with their business chiefs, especially in the current negative market conditions, some journalists are feeling increasingly distanced from the news story.

Although, overall, financial journalists seem to agree that PR within the ­financial sector is improving, it is clear that the relationship between jour­nalists and PROs remains as protean
as ever.

Adam Shaw, BBC Working Lunch presenter and PressChoice founder
Walk out of your office, stop a passer-by and ask them to name some business leaders. Nine out of ten will mention Richard Branson, Stelios Haji-Ioannou and perhaps James Dyson - and that will be it. For the majority of people in this country, business leaders are faceless rich executives who hide in their boardrooms.

Adam ShawBut it need not and, indeed, should not be like that. There are times when journalists rightly question and pressure business leaders over their performance.

There could be a more open dialogue between the media and the men and women who create the wealth and jobs that fuel our economy. Especially at a time when the financial news is full of talk of a recession, the world of business must do its best to make its voice heard.

The way to encourage debate is for PR departments to encourage their CEOs to meet the press, to talk in a plain language that does not try to hide the truth and to start building bridges.
Public relations is too often seen by journalists as a tool to obscure the truth.

Harry S Truman, the 33rd US president, said: ‘If you can't convince them, confuse them.' But it might equally be the modern motto of business and it is time it changed.

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