PR stunt or the new journalism?: The titans of public relations are going direct to viewers and readers

It's easy to be cynical but it could be the future, says Ian Burrell
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Public relations, to some the business of puff and fluff, is flexing its media muscles like never before and strong- arming its way into areas once considered the exclusive domains of advertising agencies, broadcasters and publishers.

PRs, who once had to go through the prism of journalism to convey their messages to a mass audience, are increasingly confident in circumventing traditional media altogether. In generating their own video and text-based digital content on behalf of clients, they are not only taking the bread from the table of a weakened advertising sector but encroaching onto the old territory of television and press companies.

At the forefront of this change is Edelman, an American-owned PR firm with 51 offices around the world. When in February Edelman hired Richard Sambrook, the former head of BBC News, the audacious appointment caused surprise in all disciplines of the media.

It wasn't just that Sambrook was a corporation stalwart of 30 years standing, but that Edelman had given him an intriguing new title: Chief Content Officer. Last week the company went further by hiring as its new head of strategy the influential business journalist Stefan Stern, a marquee name on the Financial Times.

The path between journalism and public relations is a well beaten one. But whereas most who previously crossed to "the other side" were hired because of their industry contacts or because their poacher-turned-gamekeeper insight made them effective crisis management "flaks", Edelman's strategy is altogether different.

Sambrook is convinced that Edelman's clients must take their message directly to the consumer. "The mantra is that every company has to be a media company in their own right, telling their own stories not just through websites but through branded entertainment, video, iPad and mobile applications," he says. "Big companies are going directly to the consumer to engage them now, rather than through display or spot ads and the traditional means of trying to reach consumers. You can't just be out there shouting at people about your brand, you've got to engage with them quite carefully, and the editorial skills that I can bring can help with that."

Company president Richard Edelman points to the fragmentation of traditional media, with shrinking audiences and a decline in trust. Sambrook, he believes, can help the company's clients express themselves in a way that has credibility and reach. Recent examples of Edelman's approach include an eco-marathon campaign for Shell in which schools and colleges were challenged to create low-fuel vehicles, generating blog and video content that was both shared with traditional media and hosted on a bespoke website. Edelman's Los Angeles-based brand entertainment specialist company Matter has used Danny Glover in The Funny Thing About Credit, a web-based educational comedy series for financial data company Experian.

By making branded entertainment Edelman is "starting to take over territory that traditionally ad agencies or marketing divisions would have occupied," says Sambrook. "A lot of those boundaries are coming down, and it's a moment of great opportunity for PR companies like Edelman." Though the company is "not moving into the news business" it is seeking a reputation for "high-quality" content, he says. "Editorial values are important because content has to have credibility and integrity." The firm will work with specialist partners rather than building an in-house production unit, he says.

Stern, in addition to his abilities as a writer, will help Edelman grow in the field of corporate consultancy, says Sambrook. "The walls of the traditional box of PR are falling away and Edelman is taking the opportunity to move into new territory. We are at a moment when a lot of the traditional lines between PR and consulting and advertising and broadcasting are blurring. Edelman is trying to bring in skill to take advantage of that."

So how different is all this? Are we seeing the emergence of a new hybrid of "journalicist" media workers, who combine editorial and public relations skills to tell a client's stories in credible "publicitage". Or is it just PR playing at advertising?

The crux of the issue is that the popularity of social media platforms – and the interactivity that they offer consumers – has given public relations firms, which have always had to argue their case, an advantage over ad companies that have specialised in the monologue of "push messaging", as Sambrook terms it. "There's this idea that PR is the medium for the age of dialogue and social media," says Danny Rogers, editor of PR Week. "The age of advertising is dead – when you built these big expensive campaigns and expected people to buy your product. In order to engage with large groups of consumers you have to create a different type of content."

Other PR companies acknowledge the boldness of Edelman's play. "There are towns in America without print newspapers, and this flexibility will turn out to be a lifeline going forward," predicts Alan Edwards, founder of the entertainment specialist Outside Organisation, which has recently hired Neil Wallis, former editor of The People. "We have got more PRs than journalists in the UK now and something is changing fundamentally."

Among the many prominent journalists who have moved into PR are David Yelland, the former editor of the Sun who is a partner at Brunswick Group, John Waples, who quit as business editor of The Sunday Times in December to join Financial Dynamics, and Peter Barron, the former editor of Newsnight who is now director of communications for Google in the UK. "Journalists have often taken the PR coin," says Chris Cartwright, managing director of corporate practice at global PR firm Burson-Marsteller. But the hiring of names such as Sambrook and Stern is "quite impressive", he says. "They are probably being hired for their ability to create a higher quality of content and a more targeted content attuned to specific audiences."

Mike Morgan, CEO of The Red Consultancy, is doubtful that PR can fill a void in news provision. "PR agencies in a strange way need to become more like news agencies, because we are going to produce more I suspect. That's the more depressing end of media fragmentation," he says. "We are not the best at filling that gap and I think it's going to lead to some trust issues with consumers. Clients still need the third-party endorsement of traditional media."

But Morgan agrees that the PR sector is buoyed by its current status in the media hierarchy. "There are quite a lot of us in the industry who are feeling reasonably good about the fact that we have got a higher degree of influence at the moment."

The weakness of traditional advertising is encouraging businesses to demand a greater profile within editorial content, says Richard Gillis, editor of Platform magazine, which covers the sponsorship industry. "This is just a part of the bigger trend which is the movement of the brand into the centre of the content because no one is watching the ads any more."

Gillis points to Coca Cola's involvement in the production of television content which it also distributes on YouTube. "Coca Cola is not happy merely being on the perimeter boards around football grounds, so it pays Wayne Rooney to front Coke Zero presents: Street Striker, a football talent show that has aired for two series on Sky 1."

Edelman, which represents such companies as Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson, will need to convince its clients that they need to be more ambitious in seeing themselves as media content producers. This will be a "challenge", predicts Mark Borkowski, one of Britain's best known PRs. "They are giving brands the opportunity to think more about technologies and content, but the real marker is whether some of the goliaths they work for will embrace that vision."

Whether or not this is a game-changing moment in media, Edelman has done a good PR job in promoting its own brand. The public relations industry as a whole is increasingly confident alongside other media disciplines, but the sector is saturated and individual companies are struggling to stand out. "Some of the big PR agencies have had a pretty tough couple of years," says Danny Rogers. "Edelman has used that as an opportunity to make a big land grab and really raise the bar with its brand. And that's pretty important in PR."