Just as I was about to write a short opinion piece on what inspires me about the PR industry, I noticed the following tweet from a BBC contact: “journalists everywhere are punching the air at this @lucykellaway column telling a PR man where to stick his threats.” As most readers will know, Lucy’s column was a public riposte to a head of communications who had emailed her saying how unhappy he was with a profile piece she had written, and included a threat about pulling advertising if this approach continued.
If there was ever a spark for the latest debate about the “dark arts” of PR and spin, this was it.
At the time, PROs across the industry wrote numerous blogs and articles about how the communications head should have responded. The ones I have read have all been spot-on in what approach should have been taken to avoid such a public fall-out; yet to me this episode has highlighted a bigger issue that I think is becoming an increasing problem in the industry.
From day one of my career, I was told how important it was to foster good relationships with journalists as soon as possible (to put this in some perspective, these were the days when sell-ins still involved faxing press releases). As my career has progressed, a lot of these contacts became good friends in pretty high media places. As with any PR/journalist interaction, there have been a number of issues along the way, bringing into focus our competing priorities and objectives. Yet it was at such points that having a good understanding of how we work and what each other needs allowed us to mediate and agree an outcome that worked for everyone. Even in cases where the perfect result wasn’t possible, good dialogue often prevented a situation from being a lot worse (as I’ve often said in issues training, you don’t want your first conversation with a journalist to be when you’re facing a crisis).
Relationships are obviously just as vital when it comes to clients or senior management. I’ve spent most of my career in-house, and in that time have appointed many agencies. On occasions when I’ve had to terminate the contract, it wasn’t their performance in delivering campaigns or coverage that was the problem, but instead a lack of client servicing and a good relationship. The teams had changed too often, leading to a greater misunderstanding of what my organisation needed.
Today’s media landscape doesn’t help; its ever increasing demand for content has meant that there is less emphasis on media relationships and more on the delivery of information. PR teams up and down the country are electronically sending out press releases, thought leadership, and quotes to journalists who they have never spoken to in detail, let alone met. When visiting agencies during a pitch process a few years ago, I was surprised how quiet they were, when just ten years ago the phones would be buzzing with conversation. As all sides are becoming more pressured for time, relationships are being side-lined. Consequently, PROs and media become more antagonistic, leading to symbolic fist-pumping when someone gets caught out.
Which is a shame, as ultimately, relationships are the core of what we do. Unless we foster them our job will be more difficult, the divide between media and PROs will continue to grow, and long-standing clients will be a thing of the past.
Article written by David Flynn, head of corporate at PR firm Grayling
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