The interdependent relationship between journalists and PR professionals has evolved significantly over recent decades. But, there is still very much more work to be done writes Steve Dann.
I’ve always been acutely aware – even sensitive to – the sometimes strained relationship between those working in public relations and the journalism profession.
I blame my former editor in chief who berated me for “selling my soul” nearly 40 years ago when I resigned as chief reporter of a weekly newspaper in the Black Country to take up a new junior position in a multi-national PR consultancy. Former colleagues at the time were equally unimpressed accusing me of moving over to the ‘dark side’ when in reality I was taking a big leap into the unknown.
During that early period as a local hack my exposure to PR had been fairly limited to the odd call from an in-house press office, trying to sell in the launch of their latest state of the art galvanized widget for the car industry, or receiving scores of press releases which had absolutely no relevance to the readership we were serving. Numerous calls into PR departments or consultancies to try and gauge some response to an issue of genuine readership interest would often fall on deaf ears and I lost count of the number of times we would have to conclude a story with the all too familiar line “a spokesman for the company was unavailable for comment.”
So at the time I rationalised that any move into PR should have plenty of upside. Firstly, based on my experience to date, I genuinely believed I could make a difference by counselling clients on how best to work with the media – providing well-crafted, relevant content in the form of press releases and features and always being prepared to face-up to potentially negative issues when the news hounds were on your trail. And of course, I could always take extra comfort from the fact that my new bosses were paying me more and had thrown in a fully expensed company car as part of the package.
Over the course of my long career, I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with some amazing clients who by and large have been happy to take on board the sound advice they have paid for. During that the period, I genuinely believe the relationship between journalists and the PR sector has improved immensely thanks mainly to higher professional standards and a much better understanding between the two parties of the demands and pressures each face on a daily basis.
In truth, hard pressed and often short-staffed news desks frequently rely on the PR sector for a regular flow of content, whilst where would we reputation specialists be without strong, solid relationships with our media contacts?
Which brings me on to Ian MacGregor, the former editor of the Metro and the Sunday Telegraph who just happened to the guest speaker at the annual prize giving ceremony of a school attended by my youngest daughter. A former pupil, Mr MacGregor was enlisted to entertain pupils and parents with memories of his time at the institution and of course impart some insight into his acclaimed career as a journalist.
I did of course have a keen professional interest in what Ian had to say and he undoubtedly captured the imagination of the upper school pupils with tales of exposing the truth – including the MPs expenses scandal – and the need for journalists to be unwavering in their determination to get to the heart of the story. All very strong and compelling material which rang a chord with me until he referred to the role of PR.
And here’s the rub – just when I thought the distinguished former editor would highlight the virtues of my chosen profession in helping journalists with their content, he implied the job was made even harder by those PRs whose sole purpose is to hide or block the truth from getting out there.
Now, good PR practice has a perfectly legitimate role to play in ensuring the client’s side of the story is told and whether the news eventually appears in the press, broadcast or online, the published content is as fair and balanced as possible. In my many years as a PR consultant, I’ve never set out to hide the truth, but a whole lot of influential sixth formers left that building with a totally wrong impression of our industry.
It made me reconsider that despite the progress made over the years, the PR sector may still have a job to do in changing perceptions, particularly amongst journalists. As for the younger generation looking at career options, perhaps I should look to redress the balance by volunteering to offer my services as a guest speaker at the next school event!