Has the British PR industry grown too big for journalism?

Senior public relations figures tell Neil Boom that their business is about so much more than briefing reporters
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The Independent Online

It’s tough for print media. Chronic declines in circulations and a loss of advertising income means titles are closing and jobs are being lost. The one thing that hasn’t dried up for print journalists is the stream of calls from public relations teams, trying to get publicity for a client’s product.

In the minds of some reporters the growth of the PR industry over the past couple of decades has been a factor in weakening the power of the press. Can under-pressure hacks, already filling in for redundant colleagues, cope with the barrage of calls and emails from ever-more PR executives flogging stories?

“To see the growth of the PR industry as a problem of ‘too many PRs chasing too few journalists’ is to see PR’s future simply in terms of traditional media relations,” says Colin Byrne, CEO of the global PR giants Weber Shandwick. “Our decision to relaunch Weber Shandwick as the ‘INLINE communications agency’ was based on several factors – the decline of traditional advertising, the growth of influence of digital and social media, and the fact that consumers and citizens are increasingly not consuming media either offline or online, but both.”

And exactly who is a journalist these days? “Who is more important – a journalist from The Sun or Radio 4, or a mum blogger?” asks Robert Phillips, the UK CEO of Edelman, the world’s largest independent PR agency. “One significant newspaper article can be supplanted by a powerful blog, which in turn can be usurped by a sudden rush of tweets. Just ask [Daily Mail columnist] Jan Moir. The PR industry itself needs to reflect not just on the changing media landscape (and the fact that social media is now mainstream media and that all media is increasingly being socialised anyway), but also on the fact that the very nature of ‘influence’ and ‘audience’ has changed fundamentally.”

Charles Watson, group chief executive of FD, has 1,000 clients around the world, and says his team need skills that go far beyond traditional media relations. “It’s never even occurred to me to think about the ratio of PRs to journalists”, he says. “Ringing journalists forms only a small part of what we do…. Our job is far more complex these days. The amount of preparation that goes into a big takeover bid is huge. The media relations part is really only the tip of the iceberg.”

Michael Davies, a director of the media intelligence company Gorkana, thinks the PR industry deserves its success because it quickly spotted the opportunities in the growing digital arena. “The PR community has been a lot more proactive than other marketing disciplines in delivering solutions to companies to exploit the digital opportunities.”

The PR companies – aided by their younger staff’s familiarity with social networking – have cottoned on quickly to these sites’ advantages. They are also aware that Twitter and Facebook regulars dislike clumsy interventions from PRs who pop in only to deliver a crude message. “New communications channels such as social media sites require specialist skills from the PR agencies,” says Claire Tuffin, managing director of one of the UK’s largest PR recruitment firms, VMA Group. “Areas such as financial PR, investor relations and healthcare have always fostered specialist practitioners, and there continues to be a steady emergence of other sectors requiring dedicated resources such as CSR and digital media.”

One big drawback is cost: it’s not cheap letting expensive executives chat away online about topics that have little to do with their individual clients. It seems the agencies are prepared to bear the expense because the rules of media engagement have changed so thoroughly. Delivering subtle messages via social networks is a far cry from the traditional PR-tells journalist, journalist-tells-reader approach.

Julia Hobsbawm, visiting professor of public relations at the University of the Arts in London, explains: “It’s no longer a linear debate. It’s now about where the information lies as part of a continued dialogue between all parties, including the public via their blogs and their online comments and twitters about stories. The public are active participants, not just consumers – power has shifted more towards the public.”

Despite the proliferation of digital media, it was reassuring that there is still a place for old-fashioned phone calls between PRs and hacks. But Rory Godson, a former business editor for The Sunday Times who now runs the financial agency Powerscourt, stresses the importance of having personal media contacts. “A good PR, who speaks almost every day to journalists, is a very efficient mechanism for getting messages across. They [PRs] understand what a journalist wants and can put the story in a way which will be effective once carried in the media. When I was a journalist I always advised companies to hire PR agencies because writers like to speak to someone who understands their needs and talks their language.”

Gavin Grant, the UK chairman of the global agency Burson-Marsteller, admits to a little nostalgia for the days when he joined the profession 30 years ago. “I can recall walking round Fleet Street, handing journalists a document on the news floor, then having a chat later on the phone. Today it is much harder to build up a rapport. This means effective communications are even more important and now the challenges are not just domestic but playing out on a global stage,” he says.

Neil Boom works for the news website One News Page, www.onenewspage.co.uk