PUBLIC RELATIONS: Changing channels - PR companies have been slow to specialise in broadcast media, but now clients are demanding greater expertise

PR people don’t normally miss a trick, so one may conclude that the proliferation and significance of television must be the single most important factor in the PR boom we have seen in the UK. But that would be wrong.

PR people don’t normally miss a trick, so one may conclude that the

proliferation and significance of television must be the single most

important factor in the PR boom we have seen in the UK. But that would

be wrong.



Historically, PR consultancies have developed on the back of their work

with the print medium. Many have more than a sprinkling of ex-print

journalists among their staff, and because of this their focus has been

predominantly on the press.



Consequently, the growth of new broadcast channels and the abundance of

PR consultancies over the past 15 years is not as interlaced as a casual

observer might suppose.



Indeed, some PR consultancies have been roundly criticised for their

lack of expertise in the broadcast arena. It was almost as if the

broadcast revolution had passed them by.



’When we came into the market six years ago it was obvious the PR

community was afraid of TV,’ says David Davis, senior vice-president

international of broadcast specialist Medialink Worldwide.



This trepidation on the part of PR consultancies has led to them having

to out-source broadcast work to specialists such as Medialink and

Bulletin International, which work hand-in-hand with PR consultancies or

in-house communications teams to develop broadcast PR solutions using

techniques such as video news releases (VNRs).



’If PR companies had taken proper notice of broadcast there wouldn’t

have been such a growth in VNR companies,’ argues Nick Hadjinikos,

broadcast manager at corporate and financial PR consultancy Dewe

Rogerson.



Dewe Rogerson set up its broadcast team a little over a year ago and

recruited TV journalist Sarah Schofield from ABC News to open up greater

opportunities for client coverage on business TV channels.



Hadjinikos believes that although it can be ’laborious’ for a PR

consultancy to keep track of what is happening in broadcast, it is

essential - otherwise clients have to use separate agencies for print

and broadcast.



Screen tests



Andy Nash, a director of PR consultancy Media Enterprises, holds similar

views. ’We believe that it doesn’t really do not to be able to do radio

and television, but a lot of PR agencies believe it is not something

they can handle themselves,’ says Nash.



Media Enterprises recently hired broadcast director Stephanie Laurence

from Medialink and has carved a niche for itself as a specialist at

selling broadcast stories. It has proved so adept at this that it is

sometimes used by other, larger PR consultancies to work on TV and radio

projects.



But probably the most significant recent development in the sector is

the launch of a broadcast consultancy at Shandwick, the biggest PR firm

in the UK. The new broadcast division, which will open next month, is

headed by former BBC business correspondent Tessa Curtis, who joined

Shandwick last September.



Curtis identifies what Shandwick is doing as the ’beginning of a

profound change’ and a shift away from the ’facilities-led approach’ of

broadcast specialists.



’There will always be a place for supplied footage (VNRs),’ says

Curtis.



’But the brutal truth is that the better the outlet the less likely they

are to use the footage. So as a client there is the danger that you

could spend a lot of money on footage for programmes that few people

will watch.’



Among the services Shandwick will offer is an editorial contact service

which will match broadcasters looking for a story or comment with

Shandwick clients.



Curtis says her aim is to build a reputation for Shandwick as a

consultancy capable of delivering regular mainstream broadcast coverage

for its clients.



In her view, there will be a genuine need for PR consultancies with

expertise in broadcast PR in the coming years.



To illustrate the direction in which she thinks broadcast PR is heading

she draws a parallel with financial PR. Fifteen years ago there were

hardly any specialist financial PR consultancies; today there is a whole

host, including some of the biggest businesses in PR. Curtis envisages a

comparable sea change in her field.



This may well be the case. Certainly there is evidence that PR

consultancies are making greater strides in building broadcast

competence.



Broadcast brief



’Today, the PR community in Britain has become very aware and

professional in the way they see the opportunities to use radio and

television,’ says Medialink’s Davis.



’In one or two cases, we have advised our clients - and they have

agreed- to bring into their operation at least one person with a

broadcast background and a brief to ensure the agency’s clients are

fully advised and represented in broadcasting.’



Superficially, this may sound as if Davis is encouraging clients to take

their broadcast business away from Medialink and handle it

themselves.



He is, of course, doing nothing of the sort.



Davis is smart enough to realise that in an expanding market, knowledge

among clients of the possibilities that exist for broadcast coverage

will lead to an increase rather than a decrease in business for

companies like Medialink.



Moreover, most PR consultancies or in-house teams simply do not have the

resources to ensure they have perpetual expertise in the fast-changing

world of broadcast.



’We know that it is almost impossible for PR companies, except perhaps

the very biggest, to keep up to speed with what’s happening,’ says

Stonborough & Co managing director John Stonborough.



Stonborough has carved a niche for himself handling ’hostile’ TV

programmes.



His consultancy advises PR companies, lawyers and their clients on

drawing up contracts for fly-on-the-wall documentaries or on keeping

their reputation intact when pursued by programmes such as the BBC’s

Watchdog and its offshoots, which he asserts have declared war on the

corporate world.



’This myth that consumer programmes attack double-glazing villains is

five years out of date,’ says Stonborough. ’They will attack you if you

do not meet impossible standards.’



In the world of radio, too, the specialists appear to be gaining

strength.



With over 230 radio stations in the UK that take either feature

interviews, promotions or both, there is simply too much activity for PR

professionals to track on full time.



’There will always be PR companies or in-house departments where they

have an expert in-house,’ says Two-Ten Communications head of broadcast

services Alan Hardy. ’But they come and go.



’We have the specialist knowledge of who’s where, what they want and how

to deliver it. The digital revolution is going to exacerbate the

problems there are now with the diversity of radio and TV stations.

You’ll have even more outlets.’



Fine tuning



Broadcast consultancy Radio Lynx says that it is enjoying more business

than before, with client companies and PR consultancies turning to it

for help on the creation, planning and management of editorial,

sponsorship and promotions.



While client marketers might be tempted to have their ad agencies work

on promotions, Radio Lynx associate director Claudia Downes believes it

is a job that can be done far more effectively by a radio specialist

used to dealing with the stations on a regular basis.



’There aren’t people at ad agencies who can co-ordinate a radio

promotion on 15 stations,’ says Downes. ’They can book spot advertising

but with a promotion it’s like a pet; you’ve got to nurture it.’



While continuing to turn to specialists as and when required, PR

consultancies are increasingly making sure they have more than a

rudimentary understanding of broadcast so as to maximise the benefit of

broadcast opportunities.



Financial services PR specialist Lansons, for example, has two staff who

help to secure broadcast coverage across all 60 of the agency’s

clients.



Lansons joint managing director Tony Langham thinks it is important to

have several staff with a broadcast brief because it is unrealistic to

expect everyone at the agency to be as accomplished at TV and radio as

they are at print.



Lansons used the recent financial crisis in the Far East as a hook for

getting clients on TV. A spokesman for its client NatWest was

interviewed on the BBC Nine O’Clock News, as was another client, The

Share Centre.



Interview interests



’TV news has a need of new people to interview, rather than the chap

with the beard from Barclays who seems to be on all the time,’ says

Langham.



Hill & Knowlton, a UK top five PR consultancy, has a reputation for

being switched on about broadcast. On behalf of client Adidas, it

recently achieved coverage of the ad featuring British tennis star Tim

Henman on Sky News, London Tonight and The Big Breakfast.



Hill & Knowlton’s approach is not to handle the whole broadcast brief

itself. According to associate director Dan Holliday this need not

entail a loss of control.



’The control comes from the people you use,’ he says. ’We have very

close links with people like Medialink and Media Enterprises because

they understand our clients.’



Another PR consultancy, Biss Lancaster, works similarly - keeping an eye

on broadcast developments but preferring to out-source specific jobs,

such as the production of VNRs. Biss consultant director Michelle

Waldron believes that VNRs exist as a way to attract the interest of

producers, seldom being used ’holistically’.



However, when footage cannot be obtained elsewhere, programmes will use

excerpts from VNRs if they add something to the story they are

telling.



Such was the case with a project Biss carried out in September 1997 for

client Rank, publicising the revamp of its Butlin’s holiday camps.



The VNR commissioned by Biss featured archive footage of Butlin’s

Redcoats together with computer-generated graphics showing plans for the

new enclosed Skyline Pavilion, a key development in the modernisation of

the leisure parks. As this material was illuminating and all but

impossible to source from elsewhere, it was attractive to broadcasters.

Coverage was achieved on GMTV, Newsnight and the BBC Six O’Clock News to

name but three.



The Butlin’s VNR was produced by broadcast specialist the London Bureau,

whose managing director Stuart Maister confirms that more PR agencies

are looking for help in getting their clients on screen.



’One person at an agency cannot do TV,’ says Maister.



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