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

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."

Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Life & Style
life
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
Arts & Entertainment
Jack Gleeson as Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones
tv
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Online Advertising Account Executive , St Pauls , London

£26K-30k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

Advertising Account Executive - Online, Central London

£25K-28k + Bonus, Private Medical Insurance, Company Pension: Charter Selectio...

NGO and Community Development in Cambodia

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: There are many small development projects in ...

Business, Marketing and Tourism Volunteer Projects

Unpaid: Kaya Responsible Travel: As part of an ongoing effort to support local...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit