A changing world puts public relations in a spin
Never mind Nick Davies's suggestion that overworked 'churnalists' are being hoodwinked by PRs, Mark Borkowski says flaks and hacks are both struggling to cope with the news cycle
Monday 18 February 2008
So the media world is flipping over and over like a gigantic overdone pancake because of the ethical fix caused by publication of Nick Davies' book Flat Earth News. I have to declare an interest as I did spend an enjoyable couple of hours with Davies about two years ago in a down at heel coffee bar in central London when he was researching the thing. I made sure that I had a Fairtrade green tea rather than the frothy cappuccino that might have coloured his opinion of my views on the state of modern PR. I tried to drive home to him that the world of public relations had changed in a way that journalism had failed to truly comprehend. PRs have not got better but more pragmatic, morphing into something unrecognizable to many hacks.
The publicity campaign for his book has been extraordinary; rarely has a tome about the fourth estate caused so much debate and, as a PR, I pray this has resulted in sales. I think Davies might be intimating in the book that information supplied to journalists by us PRs is dodgy. I suspect this suggestion of an unhealthy merging of gate-keeping and poaching might itself be a device to generate more ink and boost sales. If so, I applaud the mischief – it has made the publication an event. Usually a book is lazily promoted by a shallow survey disguised as a story – one of the issues he highlights in the book.
Colin Byrne's excellent (Byrne Baby Byrne) blog on the Davies book was right on the money. "Of course some PRs do send out vacuous rubbish and bogus surveys dressed up as a story. Of course some political PRs do try and manipulate the news. And of course some journalists are bone idle and recycle rubbish as news. But on the whole most journalists and PRs are being better trained for their jobs and are trying to do them to the best of their abilities. Interesting to see that the 'holier than thou' Guardian occasionally lets its eye for a good puff or a shapely figure get the better of news values. Witness its report on Martha Lane Fox's and Brent Hoberman's new internet business venture. The Times gives it a sober short report. The Guardian does the same but accompanies the story with a near page deep colour photo of Martha looking foxy (groan) in what looks like a black rubber dress!"
With resources under pressure in the new world of "churnalism" I do think there are PRs who take advantage. I see a generation of publicists who think smart and don't feel the need to work hard. This breed is quick to take advantage of the overworked journalist who is time poor and looks for the easy route when standing up a story. Many journalists have been sucked in. Diverted by the idea that PR is all about the world of fighting flak, they have found themselves consumed by the PR industry and made an extension of it rather than a necessary foil.
In this declining press market, promotional stunts and giveaways can now make bigger news than the key story of the day. Witness the Mail on Sunday pulling off the greatest coup of last year not with a breaking, agenda-setting story but a PR and marketing exercise in the circulation war – the cover mount of a Prince CD. When I represented Prince a decade ago he was one of the Mail on Sunday's main targets for a turnover story, someone they would have loved to have nailed and tried to on numerous occasions. But 10 years is an age in PR and journalism.
It's significant that many very good modern PRs – or media strategists – are former editors. Stuart Higgins (ex-editor of The Sun), Ian Monk (a former Daily Mail executive and deputy editor of the Daily Express) and Phil Hall (former editor of the News of the World) have all upped the stakes after swapping codes. Perhaps they saw the writing on the wall years ago?
I have just handed the manuscript of my book, The Fame Formula, to my publishers. It's a seven-year journey on understanding these changes we are seeing, what is inside the dark souls of some publicists and how strategies have been changed to try to gain the upper hand. The industry has morphed into something different to the previous notion of PR. Technology has changed the business. Five years from now, PRs will be describing the media tools of today, such as email, as archaic. I recently told an audience at Westminster University that a generation of PRs will die if they do not keep up with technological changes.
Have PRs got any better at their jobs? Let's face it, agencies are multiplying like a virulent strain of the bubonic plague. It's deadly because they will do the work at any cost – something which will devalue the craft. The hard truths are that you don't have to have any knowledge of the workings of the media to open up a PR shop – just subscribe to Gorkana and Media Disk and you can track down any journalist you like. It's like handing a chimp a Kalashnikov AKS-74U assault rifle. I am not sure if anybody cares because we never have time to put the vehicle in neutral.
The American PR man Michael Levine told me that in this crowded market only the most determined PR companies will survive. "The new game is not easy and the game is not fair. But with enough burning rage the game is winnable." Not just journalists but PR clients themselves are struggling to understand the role of modern public relations. As Levine says: "PRs [have to] spend time justifying the work to a marketing man who thinks PR is a form of direct marketing or sale promotion."
These are testing times for journalists and PRs alike. Davies has defended his book's glorification of a previous golden age of journalism. But really, who cares about the past? It's being on the money with the new idea that counts. The speed of the 24-hour news cycle has changed the rules and everything is only going to get quicker. The facts are that we all now work in a very different media universe. It's not better and it's not worse, it's the now and we better get on with it.
Mark Borkowski is a media commentator and head of www.borkowski.co.uk brand and entertainment publicists.
'The Fame Formula' is published by Macmillan in August. The book's blog can be found on www.markborkowski.com
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