We [need] the media
Remember the time when public relations was in practice synonymous with media relations? If we wanted to reach audiences and influencers with credible messages, we had first to open them to media scrutiny. No media, no message.
Now the tools and technologies are available for the communicator to engage in conversations without concern for the fickle interests of the specialist reporter.
It’s a given that the print media is in decline. So my starting point for this article, written from a UK perspective, was the assumption that media relations would be a fading force in public relations. To my surprise, I conclude that the media remains vital for credible public relations (as well as being essential for democracy).
A new dawn
It’s 6am on May 1, 1997. A bright May Morning in Oxford, celebrated with large crowds in High Street and choral music from Magdalen College tower.
If the festive atmosphere was greater this year, it wasn’t only because of the untypical spring sunshine. Polling booths were opening for a general election that would bring an end to 18 years of Conservative rule. New Labour seemed set to herald a new age for Britain.
May Morning, voting, breakfast. And still time to get to my desk in the corporate communications team of a mid-sized company that had floated on the London Stock Exchange the year before. The share price was buoyant, but we were still some years away from the ‘irrational exuberance’ that led to the market collapse of 2000.
My role had a traditional sound to it: chief press officer. But I was aware that it involved working with all the media: TV, radio, online, not just the print media (though the quarterly cuttings book was still an important gauge of our activity, and this tended to favour paper over electrons).
Disintermediation: the revenge of the flaks?
But the thought that kept troubling me was this. What was the justification for this continued focus on media relations when the tools were available for us to engage in public relations? Wouldn’t our interests be better served – and the public better informed – if we cut out the middle man or woman? Disintermediation sounded to me like sweet revenge on the arrogant and occasionally ill-informed gatekeepers in the media.
A much more powerful and influential figure than me had reached similar conclusions at around this time and was about to put them into practice.
Tony Blair’s honeymoon as UK prime minister came to an abrupt end in 1997 and his director of strategy and communications, Alastair Campbell, was plotting his revenge on the lobby: a group of reporters who were granted privileged access to government sources on condition that their reports were non-attributable. In other words, the lobby represented a world of old-style media relations conducted by gentleman’s agreement; of one favour returning another agreed by nods, winks and handshakes. For more on the lobby, see Marr (2003) 164-172.
This cosy arrangement allowed the government to brief the media whilst protecting the identities of those behind the briefings (a spinner’s charter, you could argue). Yet it allowed specialist journalists to write better-informed articles with a fuller understanding of the context and complexity of government.
But once the lobby correspondents turned uniformly negative, how was the government to regain control of the message? The two options were to break their monopoly on access to the highest levels of government, and to reach over their heads and speak directly to the public.
Both approaches were adopted. Tony Blair made himself available for softer interviews on radio and TV chatshows and in women’s magazines. Meanwhile, Alastair Campbell, who had learnt lessons from the Clinton White House, initiated daily ‘on the record’ briefings for the lobby and monthly press conferences with the prime minister that were no longer exclusive to the lobby correspondents.
Transcripts (and audio and video recordings) of these briefings were posted almost immediately on the new Number 10 Downing Street website. This was disintermediation in action. The public would no longer have to trust the biased commentary in the press – we could check the source for ourselves.
The press hated this assault on their privileges and the battle rumbled on for years until, having triumphed in his showdown with the BBC in 2004, Alastair Campbell resigned. A lower-key, more conciliatory era of media relations was promised (though Campbell’s reappearance to work for Labour’s re-election in 2005 was quickly followed by reports of another abusive tirade against a BBC news programme.
In whom we trust
September 11, 2001. We can all remember where we were when we heard about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. When shocking events happen, we have a hunger for news. As a global media centre, reports and pictures were immediately available from New York (note how this was not the case with the Indian Ocean tsunami on December 26, 2004).
I first heard the news on BBC radio. Like many others, I stopped what I was doing to watch the tragic events on television (BBC News 24). Yet why, if I truly believed in disintermediation, did I instinctively trust the media on this occasion rather than, say, typing in the White House URL in search of impartial, unmediated information?
The question seems absurd, because it’s self-evident that the media plays an important role in disseminating information in a democratic society and we’re inclined to place greater credibility in an impartial news report than in the self-serving accounts of government or big business. It’s a simple question of trust. (The media also has the newsgathering and broadcasting machine to provide the words, sounds and pictures we demand in the digital age.)
I’ve noted that I have repeated the same pattern many times in the weblogging world post 9/11. We hear some news, an online whisper. But before granting it credibility, we seek verification. Where do we go? To our trusted news sources, such as BBC News online, or to Google News to check multiple sources. If confirmed as credible (and still interesting to us) we repeat the story on our blogs with a link to the news report.
In this example, the world of blogs is bolstering the world of big media, not undermining it as many commentators have predicted. Just because there’s too much to take in (too many books, too many journals, too many magazines, too many media channels, too many websites, too many news releases and too many blogs), we rely on the filtering function of the news media to make sense of all this new information. In describing this phenomenon, Dan Gillmor writes of the need for ‘hierarchies of trust’.
Since not every new thing is news, and not all news is of interest to all of us all of the time, we rely in the instincts of journalists and editors to shape the day’s events into patterns that make sense to us. We place our trust in our favoured media brands. Blogs can help too, by their selective attention and because our experience of their authors and access to metrics such as Google Page Rank give us a measure of their trustworthiness.
There is, of course, also a role for unmediated communications. There are times when talking face to face with key individuals or audiences is the best way to communicate and to listen. Organisations should also continue to publish the full facts and the full text of speeches, while recognising the limitations of PR outputs (news releases are not news; they should be a source of news).
Trusted news (4 Cs)
In addition to the brand values of the media source, I suggest that we trust the news when we believe it to be:
· In Context
If you apply these tests to most corporate public relations, you will find that public relations news can rarely be comprehensive (we cannot and should not refer to our competitors and our critics in our news stories). Sadly, while we should always be current and clear in our outputs, the process of corporate clearance sometimes militates against this.
If this is overly critical of our industry, then we should have the in-built credibility of being a source. Apple should be credible in what it says about itself. Yet the reader still has to interpret PR sources to place them in context.
In a world of all-pervasive, ambient news there’s more need (not less) for stories to be filtered, to be categorised and placed into hierarchies. Given the likely pressure to influence the news agenda from politicians and business leaders and pressure groups it’s even more important that this job of news processing is handled by impartial, independent observers. This is the vital role played by journalists and their editors.
How journalists help us in PR
While I may have resented my inability to gain national media attention for all of my corporate news stories back in 1997, I came to welcome the tough standards applied by gatekeepers in the major media. Because while they made it tough for me to influence their articles, the same high standards applied to my competitors and to the many individuals and pressure groups who were also clamouring for publicity.
While journalists may have an instinctive bias in favour of the underdog (‘David versus Goliath’ is one of the media’s best-loved stories) the same instinct to discount corporate hype is applied when they filter out crank calls. The online age has made it much easier for activists and single-issue campaigners to gain a nominal level of credibility.
But they need more than websites, petitions and letter-writing campaigns. They desperately need the oxygen of publicity that the media can uniquely supply to ignite the sparks of their campaign.
A free society should allow those with a genuine grievance to be heard (and the press has an honourable role in helping to right wrongs), but citizens and businesses have a right to be protected from malicious and spurious attacks. The sceptical instincts of the journalist can help ensure that the news is not full of the rants and ravings of cranks and pranksters (though occasionally something will slip through).
PR, the media and a free society
‘You can’t have a free society without a free press’, former press secretary Bernard Ingham recalls Margaret (now Lady) Thatcher saying when she was prime minister in the 1980s.
More recently, public relations practitioner and academic Dejan Vercic has spoken about the correlation between democratic societies and flourishing public relations industries. Where there’s one, you’ll find the other. Where one doesn’t exist, nor does the other.
Though its many critics might argue that public relations seeks to subvert the exchange of ideas in a free society, Vercic argues that public relations contributes to and strengthens choice in pluralist societies.
Journalists can help us in PR, but is it a reciprocal relationship?
Public relations acts as a source and as a subsidy for the media. The journalist’s resources to chase stories and investigate facts are ever more constrained. Yet in the US and the UK, there are now more people working in public relations than in journalism. Public relations can provide journalists with ideas, facts, photos and opinions – free of charge and copyright free.
Creative, credible public relations should be a valuable media resource. Public relations practitioners should act as a filter on product promotions masquerading as news and they should be willing to engage in internal discussions about the value of an independent media (since the credibility of messages in the media depends on editorial selection and endorsement.)
Media under fire
Journalism has entered an introspective, self-critical phase. In Britain, the government launched an all-out assault on the BBC in the aftermath of the Iraq war and, improbably, appeared to gain a total victory. In the US, the Jayson Blair scandal has raised questions about the integrity of all journalists. Everywhere, business correspondents face difficult questions about their over hyping of the dot coms followed by their lack of scrutiny of unfolding corporate scandals at Enron, WorldCom and Parmalat.
Newspapers are struggling to maintain circulations in a commercial market in which consumers expect news to be free. Reporters feel underpaid and poorly resourced when they glance enviously at the pay and conditions of those working in public relations and corporate communications. There’s an enduring myth of the journalist as Lone Ranger: the individual battling to uphold truth and decency in a hostile world; but in reality most journalists work for large organisations, often with diversified business interests and little stomach for lengthy, expensive and awkward investigations. Risk averse accountants and lawyers call the shots.
Within these constraints, reporters are under constant pressure to be first to break stories in a world where news is ubiquitous. Above all, they are struggling to adjust to an online age in which journalists have lost their monopoly on news.
Yet what has happened to the media in the digital and online era that was meant to lead to disintermediation? Rather than going away, the media has proliferated. The three terrestrial television channels in Britain in the early 1980s have become hundreds of channels today. Newspaper circulation may be in decline, but their reach has massively increased through online means. As my colleague David Phillips points out, the UK’s Guardian newspaper (a low circulation broadsheet) has disproportionate worldwide influence via the web thanks to its investment in online content. While its circulation may be low, its reputation is riding high.
If there are simple guidelines to suggest which news sites we find trustworthy, what are the principles behind trustworthy public relations?
Here are my suggestions. Public relations should be:
· Transparent (are you who you say you are? is it clear who you represent?)
· Creative (are your ideas good, though not necessarily whacky?)
· Credible (on whose authority are you speaking?)
· Sourced (is your research clearly identified?; three times this morning on the radio the question was put: 'what's your evidence?')
· Timely (not too soon, preferably not embargoed; not too late in the day; and never call the day after publication…)
We’ve known ever since Intel was forced to replace its Pentium chips because of Usenet mutterings back in 1994 (Gillmor, 2004, 46) that online forums can influence the media and cause even the largest organisations to rethink. Yet it’s when these mutterings tip into the media mainstream that we really sit up and take note.
We can influence the media through newsgroups and weblogs; we can know more of individual journalists through their blogs (for example, here’s The Independent’s Charles Arthur having a rant about badly-directed news releases); but the most satisfactory relationships sooner or later have to progress from the virtual to the real world.
Media relations remains as important and as unpredictable in the digital age as it has always been. It’s not the only game in town, but it still has a special place in making public relations distinct within corporate and marketing communications – since media coverage brings credibility to public relations messages. As the UK’s Institute of Public Relations suggests, ‘public relations is about reputation: the result of what you do, what you say, and what others say about you’. It’s the last of these clauses that’s hardest to influence, but most valuable to the PR practitioner.
Richard Bailey is a senior lecturer in public relations at Leeds Business School, part of Leeds Metropolitan University
Dan Gillmor (2004) We the media: grassroots journalism by the people for the people, O’Reilly
Ian Hargreaves (2003) Journalism: Truth or Dare? Oxford University Press
Shel Holtz (2nd edition 2002) Public Relations on the Net Amacom
Howard Kurtz (1998) Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine, Pan Books
Andrew Marr (2004) My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism, Macmillan
David Phillips (2001) Online Public Relations, IPR/Kogan Page
George Pitcher (2002), The Death of Spin, Wiley