FOCUS: MEDIA RELATIONS - Cracking coverage. In-house PR departments can have different constraints when trying to deal with the media, but it is often management’s fault if their company does not get the coverage that they want. Mary Cowlett repor

Media relations may be the bread and butter of the PR industry, but there is still a great deal of misunderstanding about its role within a large number of UK companies.

Media relations may be the bread and butter of the PR industry, but

there is still a great deal of misunderstanding about its role within a

large number of UK companies.

A study into this area, ’How Press Aware are UK Companies?’, has been

carried out by Chameleon Marketing Communications and sponsored by

PRDirector, a new media relations CD-ROM company (see panel).

The survey of 2,000 companies across the UK shows that while 92 per cent

of in-house PR professionals think that their organisation has a good

relationship with the media, only 58 per cent of senior marketing

managers and directors feel the same.

According to PRDirector managing director, Helen Brennan, this suggests

a lack of internal understanding about what media relations


’Media relations can be the least controllable part of the marketing

mix, because an organisation is relying on a third party to interpret

their messages on their behalf,’ she says.

The findings show that there is a fundamental gap between what PR people

and others in their organisation think about media relations.

This could be down to most in-house PROs having closer contact with the

media than their colleagues, and therefore viewing the relationship in a

better light. But many believe that too many senior company executives

still struggle to place media relations in perspective as an imprecise


’The findings of this survey do not surprise me at all,’ says Hilary

Berg, head of PR at food retailer Iceland.

’Not all marketing people have a sound understanding of media


Some of them just don’t grasp the unpredictability of putting out a

story on a busy news day. Not to mention the need to work with

journalists to give them what they want rather than trying force a

particular story on them.’

According to Berg, the test of her colleagues’ understanding of media

relations came last autumn, when Iceland launched its ’Food You Can

Trust’ campaign. This initiative - to give customers own-label products

free from artificial colours, flavours and, where safe, preservatives -

was announced to the media on 6 October, an hour before the Paddington

rail disaster happened.

The crux of any organisation’s media relations is the backing of the

senior management team. ’You have to have the chief executive and senior

directors championing what you do,’ says Alex Parsons, press and issues

manager at utility company London Electricity.

Of course, one of the key ways to get senior management backing for

media relations is to prove that it works. Media evaluation to show that

journalists are responding and the messages are getting through is an

important tool to get management to understand the importance of media

relations. Media evaluation can become a powerful management tool as it

shows the strengths and weaknesses of a company reflected in its


London Electricity was bought by French state-owned utility operator

Electricite de France 18 months ago. This gave London Electricity a new

chief executive, Bruno Lescoeur, and raised some tricky issues with the

UK media about foreign ownership and the comparative lack of competition

in the French electricity market.

’We hadn’t been able to talk on the record for a long time,’ says

Parsons, who explains that the company was suddenly thrust back into the

media spotlight, following a four-month period of enforced silence

during the bid process. ’But it was a real opportunity to start afresh

with a new management team, to implement an ongoing and successful media

initiative,’ he adds.

Last March, the company invited the energy and business correspondents

from the broadsheets and wire services to come and meet Lescoeur and his

colleagues. This marked the start of an open-door policy with

journalists, which has been matched by a more relaxed reporting

structure in-house.

’We have developed a very open internal culture where there is a lot of

interaction between senior management and all levels, both formally and

informally,’ says Parsons. ’And the senior directors understand the

media, which means that they make themselves accessible to journalists,

and comment on issues wherever possible.’

But for global organisations with a disparate workforce, the task of

tailoring corporate messages for local audiences is often up to

spokespeople out in the field. And it is vital that the decision makers

at the top can handle the task effectively.

’We make sure that the corporate and regulatory affairs division inputs

into management development programmes as widely as possible,’ says Fran

Morrison, external communications manager of British American Tobacco

Group (BAT).

The company runs specific media skills courses for its general managers

and country managers who form the senior backbone of the organisation in

more than 180 countries around the world. The courses cover areas such

as building skills in managing issues, external and internal

communications and media relations.

In addition, BAT has an ongoing media training programme for its

business managers and line managers covering topics from dealing with

journalists to the nitty gritty of giving interviews.

’One of our principles is that you don’t always want PR people to be the

spokespeople,’ says Morrison.

BAT is currently reviewing its media training offering, to enhance its

capability and delivery at a local level. Morrison says: ’It is

important for our organisation that our business, line and special

managers can explain what they do and the company’s position on issues

in their particular field.’

But it is not only organisations whose business or products raise

challenging issues which realise the value of effective media


’In my industry brands are made and broken in the media,’ says Matt

Peacock, director of corporate communications at on-line service

provider AOL.

’That means that there is not a single person in this building who does

not understand the importance of what we say and how we are represented

in the media.’

Peacock thinks this approach is common to most internet businesses, but

he is sceptical of how far this extends to more traditional players. He

tells the horror story of a US oil giant which responded to the global

oil-price slump by laying-off its entire PR team at two hours


’They saw it as cost-cutting exercise,’ he says. ’PR was viewed as a

nice thing to have, but not a core business function.’

At pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Wellcome, the corporate communications

team likes to think of itself as the interface between internal and

external customers. ’On a corporate level we work to put our internal

customers - the marketing teams, or the scientists in the research and

development department for example - in front of the right journalists

so they can put their messages across effectively,’ says corporate

communications manager Phil Thomson.

’Whereas for journalists demanding information we go heavily on breaking

down barriers, so that we are reactive to time and regional


The Glaxo team also looks to provide specialist expertise for the media

by putting forward spokespeople with appropriate knowledge in specific

therapeutic or business areas.’

But how seriously do journalists think companies take media


How do they feel about dealing with the corporate communications


Last month, on the letters page of this magazine, (16 June) freelance

journalist Ken Gofton expressed his despair at the quality of in-house

press offices in general and the lack of urgency displayed by a few.

Unfortunately, Gofton is not alone in his criticisms. ’Some

organisations handle media relations very well. They have awareness of

what the press wants and maintain a good level of contact, without

overkill,’ says Neil Gibbons, international editor of Investor Relations

magazine. ’But others take a more scattergun approach, and that’s just a

complete turn off.’

Gibbons admits that he often feels frustrated by some in-house press

officers’ apparent failure to deliver even the most basic information,

such as naming new appointments. But, in line with the results of the

survey, he thinks this is a problem that extends beyond than the press


’It needs to be a two-way process,’ he says. ’People within an

organisation need to keep their press office informed.’

Many companies in the UK have reporting structures that impede rather

than promote good relations with journalists.

’Clearly some companies are good, they are very organised and are not

afraid of speaking to a journalist,’ says business and finance writer

Richard Willsher. ’But when a company PRO has not been empowered to

speak for a company then that is really frustrating.’

Like many, Willsher identifies the most professional spokespeople as

those who obviously have the backing of senior management. To illustrate

his point, he cites a recent successful interview with the top director

of a US automotive portal. ’It was seamless. The guy answered all my

technical questions, was very helpful and I got everything I wanted,

because the PR person was able to act as a facilitator,’ he says.

While the findings of Chameleon’s study will come as no surprise to

many, the fundamental issue this survey throws up is to what extent

media relations is a core business function. If an organisation does not

have a handle on media relations, it is likely that the corporate

relations director does not have a seat at the top table.

As Peacock says: If there is a gulf between the views of the corporate

communications department and others in the company about how media

relations is perceived, then that shows a lack of confidence on the part

of senior directors in their own PR people.

’It demonstrates that the managing director has not given enough

thought, weight and attention to that particular role within the

company,’ he says.


’How Press Aware Are UK Companies?’, a research study of UK companies

and how they communicated with the media was conducted by Chameleon

Marketing Communications.

The findings are based on a postal poll of 2,000 companies in April


Respondents included marketing managers and directors, external

relations and PR managers and directors within the UK’s largest

business-to-business and business-to-consumer companies, plus directors

from a selection of UK small businesses.

- 73 per cent of UK companies see the media as a positive opportunity to

promote their organisation’s messages

- While two out of three UK companies have a good relationship with the

media, a further one out of three does not.

- Two out of three UK companies feel that their senior managers could be

better equipped to communicate with the press.

- Only one out of three UK companies use specialists PR agencies to

support their media relations efforts.

- The biggest disadvantages of using outside agencies is the high cost

involved in employing them, in 75 per cent of cases, and that they do

not fully understand the organisation’s business and products, in 56 per

cent of cases.

- In 59 per cent of cases, the main advantage of using a PR agency was

considered to be the extra creativity they add to the PR process. The

second advantage was the fact that using an agency gives companies more

time to focus on other areas of PR and marketing, in 49 per cent of


- Practically no UK companies wine and dine editors and journalists to

win them over. Instead, 80 per cent believe that good media relations is

achieved by getting the media to trust that you have something

worthwhile to say.

- 44 per cent of UK organisations are guilty of committing the ultimate

media relations crime of saying ’No comment’ during a press


Two out of three organisations also feel that they have been misquoted

by the press.

- In over half of cases, budget, and time involved in training were seen

as the biggest obstacles to developing internal press relations


- When asked what ’freedom of the press’ actually means to them, 36 per

cent said it was necessary, but think that the press take their freedom

too far. A further one in five companies believe that the press should

respect people’s privacy more than they do.


On 7 July, Chameleon Marketing Communications launched a reference guide

to media relations entitled PRDirector.

Retailing at around pounds 249 plus VAT, this CD-ROM was developed in

response to demands from clients and includes input from a range of

journalists and PR professionals, such as Alison Theaker, head of

education and training at the IPR.

According to PRDirector managing director Helen Brennan, the tool is an

interactive, hands-on source of everything people need to know to put

press relations into action.

The first main section of the CD-ROM is called ’What you need to


This outlines background knowledge for effective press relations. It

examines how to deal with journalists, how to write a press release and

how to make information newsworthy.

There are pointers on delivery techniques, such as when to go for a

one-to-one interview with a journalist or hold a press conference

instead; templates of good and bad press releases; and guidance on

tailoring case studies to different audiences.

The second section is called ’What you need to do’ and outlines what

action should be taken to make press relations work. This looks at the

specific elements of planning, defining objectives and developing a

media strategy.

It contains sample public relations plans and advice on evaluating

activities and learning from potential failures. The CD-ROM contains

video and audio clips of real-life examples, plus a list of contacts for

support services, including press cuttings bureaux, photographers and

VNR producers.

’PRDirector could be useful for anybody involved in press relations, but

there are some specific groups of people for whom it can reap particular

benefit,’ says Brennan.

These include SMEs, PR students and graduates, plus global companies

looking to implement consistent corporate press relations practice

across their entire organisation. The CD-ROM could even be useful for

more seasoned marketers, as a benchmark for buying-in outsourced PR


The CD is not intended as a replacement for consultancy expertise, but

as a basic resource. In-house people working for SMEs could use the

product as a starting point for their first PR activity - it also

includes guidelines on working with agencies. For larger companies,

PRDirector could be used as an in-house training resource to enlighten

senior managers who may not see the value of spending time and money on

PR, and for training new recruits from a non-PR background in


PRDirector has 2,000 demonstration CD-ROMS to give away, which can be

obtained through its web site:


Last month, food retailer Iceland announced a move to invest pounds 1

million to support the National Trust’s ’Whole Farm Planning’ programme

and spend a further pounds 8 million to switch all its frozen vegetables

to organic by October 2000. The company also declared its aim to secure

40 per cent of the world’s organic produce at no extra cost to the


This was potentially the biggest food story of the year, so the media

relations plan centred on keeping the announcement under wraps until

launch day. Following talks with third parties, including the Soil

Assocation, Iceland’s in-house PR department worked closely with the

National Trust’s chief press officer, Sarah Clifford, to produce a video

news release and audio news release, plus a press pack for regional


On 14 June, a broadcast alert was issued with basic details of the

announcement at 6am. This was followed by a photocall and press

conference at National Trust HQ in London, after which the story hit the


However, as this major new strategy was likely to have far-reaching

implications for all Iceland customers, suppliers and stakeholders, it

was vital to involve the entire company.

On the eve of the launch, the PR team ran three major presentations for

staff at its head office in Deeside, and delivered a video briefing for

store employees up and down the country. Each member of staff was

e-mailed with information and every team leader throughout the company

received a copy of the press pack.

’This was critical as we knew media relations would result in customer

enquiries at store levels, plus calls from suppliers and partners into

head office,’ says Hilary Berg, Iceland’s head of PR.

The following day in London, Iceland fielded a team of 15, including

chairman Malcolm Walker, managing director Russell Ford and experts from

the buying and technical departments, who all hit the studios in

Millbank by 5.15am for pre-recorded broadcast interviews.

In the afternoon, a panel of experts were on hand to answer specific

questions and Ford made himself available for interviews at Iceland’s

Fulham store. At 6pm, the team relocated to Westminster for a

Parliamentary reception to explain the organic strategy to MPs.

Broadcast coverage ran all day, ranging from Radio 4’sToday programme

and BBC Working Lunch, to the Jimmy Young Show and Newsnight. The

Iceland team squeezed in 125 one-to-one interviews and the press office

received 550 enquiries from around the globe.

The press conference was attended by 20 journalists, seven photographers

and two TV crews, which resulted in substantial coverage in all the

national and regional newspapers the following day. ’It was really

successful,’ says Berg. ’But I am very lucky. I don’t know how many

other company chairmen or managing directors would agree to get up at

4am to meet the media!’

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