Here is a great irony that the Public Relations industry has been wrestling with for years: PR has bad PR. To some on the outside who realise that we don’t do advertising or flyering for clubs in Zante, PR consultants are often associated with names like Alastair Campbell, Max Clifford or Damian McBride – infamous characters who have contributed to a stigma that unfairly taints our industry as somehow morally grey.
This feeling recently crystallised in a widely publicised lecture given by the BBC’s Economics Editor Robert Peston to the British Journalism Review. In his speech, Peston claimed that “PRs are the enemy…professional bullshitters [who] have lost the capacity to see the difference between fact and fiction”. Whilst it has been reported that this hostile language was delivered with more levity than the written word allows for, we can be left in no doubt of Peston’s feelings about the PR industry.
Peston’s attack prompted outrage in many quarters, with PRCA Chairman Francis Ingham countering by stating that PRCA members “sign up to rigorous codes”, before going on to savage Peston’s entire take on journalist-PR relations.
Who is right? Both – and neither.
To my mind, attributing PR’s bad press purely to dodgy dealings by a few “rogues and pirates” (as Peston calls them) is missing the point. PR has bad PR because the good majority are let down by those who operate in a sloppy, ineffectual manner that antagonises the media – an altogether different type of ‘bad’. This builds hostility, resentment and ultimately perpetuates negativity through the very channels we need to do our jobs effectively.
There are plenty of young PRs out there who have felt the full force of an angry journalist on the other end of the phone. We’ve all witnessed the scathing tweets from editors, reporters and every other rank in-between complaining about annoying, stupid or useless PRs. Unfortunately, too many PRs give journalists a reason by bombarding them with unnecessary phone calls, emails and tweets in the hope of securing coverage. Some make it worse by trying (and justifiably failing) to sell in non-stories – often to placate clients. Let’s make no bones about it: you are failing to serve your client as a communications consultant if you do not advise them on what does and does not qualify as ‘news’.
Here’s a simple solution to get journalists back on side: stop annoying them. Good PRs know how to sniff out a story that will benefit both the client and the journalist – the media only feel angry if their time is wasted by an untargeted, slapdash approach. We recently secured coverage for internet security client Comodo in a range of IT verticals by hijacking the news that authorities had disrupted Cryptolocker and GoZeus for two weeks. The Comodo PR team at Firefly identified the journalists who had covered this, obtained a fresh take on the story from Comodo’s CEO and then provided this to the journalists in a targeted, personable way, proposing a follow-up piece on protecting your computer and data. This resulted in coverage in the likes of Computer Business Review, Tech Week Europe and eTeknix and served to build our relationships with key influencers – something that a mail merge simply could not accomplish.
No amount of good practice will placate journalists 100% and turn them into our best friends. Nor should it. Journalists exist to satisfy their readers, to report on events in a balanced way. Our job is to advise our clients on how best to ride these media rapids. Like it or not though, we have a symbiotic relationship. If journalists and PRs alike can accept that we need each other, if we can move forward with mutual understanding and respect, then both of our jobs will be all the more satisfying – and maybe the reputation of the Public Relations industry will change.