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Entrepreneurs Panel

Tony Caldeira
Jeremy Roberts
David Pollock
Brian Hay
Laura Tenison
Richard O'Sullivan
Julie Meyer
Jennie Johnson
Charlie Mullins
Michael Oliver
Steve Purdham
Debbie Pierce

Wagging the dog?

The relationship between PR firms and many journalists has undergone a shift in recent years. What does this mean for entrepreneurs as sources and consumers of business news?

The media has a tendency to self-mythologise. The cliché of the hack in a stained raincoat uncovering scoop after scoop at the bar of a dimly-lit boozer is one that the industry is not keen to dispel – and the recent scandal surrounding phone hacking, peppered as it was with references to private investigators, has only added fuel to those flames.

The truth, in the business and trade press at least, is rather less exciting. This may not come as a great surprise but what, perhaps, might is just how much content in everything from the business sections of national newspapers to the news-based websites that now proliferate comes directly from PR agencies and departments.

To some extent it was ever thus – at least in recent times. However, a couple of factors have conspired to promote many press releases from their traditional role of “source” material to being, well, the news itself.

One of these factors is the staffing levels at newspapers, magazines and websites. While more news outlets seem to appear almost daily, these are increasingly run on a skeleton staff.

In recent years local media owners, partly in an attempt to maintain the profit margins they had achieved on the back of advertising during the residential property boom – and before the rise of Rightmove – have, if you’ll pardon the pun, hacked their staffing levels. The reasons for this are complex, and as with so many things include servicing the massive levels of debt taken on to put together the biggest local newspaper groups.

The result, however, is that now the business editor of a daily local paper with a readership covering several large towns and major employers will often be in their 20s and see taking on a relatively junior role in PR as a step up, career-wise.

The result is that over-stretched and often inexperienced journalists are casting about for news to fill their pages – and the PR industry, its ranks swollen by former journalists who see brighter career prospects on that was traditionally known as “the dark side” is on hand to help them fill it.

This is a trend that Michael Bennett, managing director of business-to-business PR agency Pelican, has noticed. He says, “Staff and technological changes have meant many journalists have become content managers rather than news gatherers. Some PR people have become ‘trusted sources’ providing stories that journalists don’t have the time to research.

“This is not necessarily a bad thing if the PRs understand what makes news and provide stories that are relevant to the publication and its readers.”

Possibly not. Many journalists would argue that as long as stories supplied by PR departments fi t in with their news agenda and the tail isn’t wagging the dog then there’s nothing to worry about. It saves them a bit of work but the end result is the same.

There has, however, been another change over the past few years – and it’s been driven as much by technology as by staffing levels in newsrooms. While many aspects of the technological revolution of the last decade and a half have had an impact on the way news is gathered and reported, arguably none has had a greater effect than the humble email.

Where just a decade ago PR agencies used to stuff hundreds of copies of press releases into envelopes, crank up the franking machine and then let the postman do the rest, now press releases are distributed direct to journalists’ desktops
via email.

At first this had little effect. Journalists would print them out and treat them as they always had – as a lead, and the source of a story, but not the story itself. Different journalists would take different angles on the material – almost always not that with which the press release led.

And, mostly horrifi ed at the prospect of being seen to have published the same material as their competitors, journalists would go back to the company behind the press release to get exclusive comments rather than reprinting the platitudinous quotes provided in the press release.

Then a few years ago journalists discovered the “cut and paste” facility. Somewhere, at some point, one journalist realised that a competitor that they respected had just used a press release pretty much verbatim, and so the dominoes began to topple.

EN spoke to a number of people in the PR industry about this. Although none could dispute the empirical fact that the stories they provide are more regularly cut-and-pasted now than in the past, few were willing to admit that this meant they weren’t “scrutinised” beforehand by journalists.

Claire Tennant, managing director of PR agency MC2, has been in the industry for nine years, and previously worked in broadcast journalism.

She says, “A press release does have to be well-written. There are plenty that aren’t and can’t be cut and pasted. “I think the benchmark of how a PR campaign is measured has changed. Cutting and pasting devalues a title. We still have valued titles where journalists are willing to scrutinise a story.”

She does admit, though, that this “scrutiny” doesn’t involve journalists actually speaking to her clients to the same extent that it used to. “We don’t get as many requests for comments as we did five years ago,” she continues.

“Partly this is because people are happier not to differentiate their stories. Also our approach has changed and we will now give stories to individuals on an exclusive basis, because we’re keener to work with journalists that do proper journalism.

“I think it’s become a bit more of an even relationship, dare I say it.”

It’s difficult to argue with her – when a journalist is basically relying on a PR agent to write their copy for them it means that effectively each has become just a gatekeeper. One, the journalist, controls the means of distribution while the PR agent controls the fl ow of information to that journalist.

Emma Jones, an account director at PR agency Peppermint, was a journalist at business-to-business title Insurance Times before moving into PR about five years ago. She says, “Personally,

I’d have been fi ne with the relationship between journalists and PRs as it is now. But the element among journalists who like to fi nd their own stories might fi nd it hard.

“There’s still an element in the journalistic world who don’t like PRs but they have to admit defeat and that they do rely on us. But we fi nd in general that as long as you’re pitching the right things and not trying to compromise their news agenda then it works.”

She then repeats Tennant’s line: “I think it probably galls some people, but now the relationship is a bit more even.”

But what does this actually mean for the average entrepreneur? The obvious one is that if you have some news that you’d like to get into the press and you present it in a form that mimics a news story as closely as possible then your chances of getting it published are probably better than ever.

But, as consumers ofbusiness news, entrepreneurs need to be aware that much of what they read comes largely unmediated from the PR representatives of their competitors and is often published with minimal verification.

Those in the PR industry, of course, argue that this shouldn’t be a problem if the story is written properly. Julie McGuckian, a director at Euro RSCG PR, who has previously worked in corporate affairs at
Tesco and as a press officer at the DTI, as it then was, says, “I trained as a journalist, as did many of the team here, and I subject my copy to the same level of scrutiny as I would if I was reporting it.

“We have internal processes that enable us, as a team, to interrogate content as we’re developing it to make sure what we send out is of the highest standard and tailored to the needs of the journalist.”

It remains the case, however, that a PR agent is paid by the client, not the journalist or you, the reader, so while the better ones will make sure they don’t say anything untrue, they may well leave something out that the general reader might be interested in.

A cynic might even say that those PR agents who choose to select “favoured” titles to receive their stories do so because they know they are likely to be interpreted by those journalists, if at all, in a favourable light.

This is, of course, not universal. Bennett says, “Whilst many publications have seen staff reduced, it varies from industry to industry. If you look at the retail grocery industry its weekly title, The Grocer, still has a staff of 25 journalists and as a result it is highly regarded across the industry and remains
highly infl uential, regularly breaking exclusive news stories.

“The same is true in the hospitality sector where Caterer and Hotelkeeper is the publication of record. These titles still rely on PR people for a great majority of their news as we regularly pitch stories and feature ideas to them.

“However, the difference is that these titles have more time to interrogate and probe a story or an idea so only valid content gets through. This is a good argument for employing a PR company that’s expert in this sector – but I would say that wouldn’t I?”

While hoary old hacks like the EN team agonise over the ethics of cutting and pasting press releases there is, of course, a potentially even larger shift at play in the distribution and consumption of business news: social media.

This year we have seen major stories break on the social network Twitter, all in bite-sized chunks of 140 characters or fewer. Some of these “tweets” were posted by journalists. Many more were not.

The rise of social media, and companies hosting their own news on their own websites, means – according to Tennant – that, “The future is businesses being the holders of their own content – almost their own publishers.

“I think businesses will learn to value and maximise that. At the moment there is some reluctance – but it’s going that way.”

McGuckian agrees that companies’ PR strategies now need to focus as much on how they communicate directly via social media as through interaction with journalists.

She says, “The advent of self-publishing through social media has arguably created the biggest opportunity for business leaders, allowing individuals to publish their thoughts uncensored,
grow their own following and engage with other business influencers on issues that really matter.

“It is all about starting conversations and listening, rather than simply broadcasting your own messages. Taking a strategic approach to digital engagement is as important as with traditional media if you want to gain traction and influence.”

And this is going on all around us, whether we choose to play a part in it or not. Colin Sneath, director of agency Huddle Media, says, “Conversations about industry issues, the economy, brands and products are going on all the time in Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and blogs – and you are either a contributor (or better still a leader) or you are left behind.

“Failure to engage with social media is like putting your hand over your eyes and assuming that therefore no one can see you. You, your industry, your company, your service, your competitors could all be the topic of lively conversation, good or bad – and if you aren’t there you can’t defend a position, capitalise on an opportunity or build your reputation.”

But this isn’t, when you think about it, so terribly different from traditional PR – choosing not to engage with the media doesn’t mean they won’t report on the bad news you would prefer they hadn’t found out about – just the good stuff that you haven’t told them about.

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