Public Relations: Winning the media race - Media relations is a key element of PR, but the sophistication of audiences has made media coverage harder to attain. Cathy Bond looks at the new challenges ahead

Last year, just before the Boat Race, the PR firm Harvard persuaded the entire Oxford crew to sit in their boat and play with Game Boys, the cult toy marketed by its client, Nintendo. Ecstatic staff circulated the picture to all newspapers. To a man, the press ignored it.

Last year, just before the Boat Race, the PR firm Harvard persuaded

the entire Oxford crew to sit in their boat and play with Game Boys, the

cult toy marketed by its client, Nintendo. Ecstatic staff circulated the

picture to all newspapers. To a man, the press ignored it.



’It’s agonising when a stunt fails, but the message - that this kind of

thing is just gratuitous - is an appropriate one,’ admits a rueful

Gareth Zundel, Harvard’s group PR director. ’The media realise that

their audience is getting more sophisticated.’



On the other hand, Harvard’s staff often infiltrate radio listener

phone-ins to get Nintendo’s name on air - and in context - by matching

the style and lingo of, for example, Chris Evans. Overt, but more

subtle.



The rules are changing. ’Knowing your media is key,’ says Zundel. ’Then

you know how far you can bend the rules.’



Most PR consultants spend much of their time dealing with journalists,

yet media relations remains one of the grittiest and most thankless

tasks, and one for which the bulk of staff get little formal training.

And the volume of media contacts will increase.



The thirst for fame, or for some sort of media profile, is spreading

fast. ’Everyone in business hoovers up media coverage about themselves

and turns green when their competitors get a press mention,’ says Adrian

Wheeler, managing director of GCI London. ’If I really want to know a

client’s PR objectives, I only have to ask which competitor’s coverage

arouses their jealousy. They always know.’



Outside the commercial world, the clamour for a voice and a public

profile is also growing. Organisations from hospitals and schools to

charities - or even individuals with a mission, such as Nicola Horlick -

want access to the media. Fees earned by members of the Public Relations

Consultants Association, which represents 80% of the UK PR sector, rose

5% in 1995 and surged ahead by 15% last year.



Yet from the editorial side, it is easy to suppose that the best

qualification for a PR career must be a thick skin. Also, that the

people who churn out press releases to an unvarying formula would do

well to take a lead from their own clients by targeting their messages

to narrowly defined audiences: a skill which even top PR consultancies

admit is still too thin on the ground.



Media relations has never been an easy job. But is it really getting

harder, as some industry leaders claim? In fact, opinion is divided.

Some believe the immutable truth is that it is human nature for editors

and consultants to regard each other with suspicion. Meanwhile, others

see even tougher challenges ahead in what has been dubbed the ’new media

landscape’.



The growth in print media, and in TV and radio, opens up many new

communications routes, which can only increase the pressure to find good

editorial material.



Likewise, the trade press, post-recession, is expanding once more.

Titles serving similar audiences need to create a unique selling point,

but this concept is at odds with some fundamental PR techniques.



’A lot of people think of journalists as being ’one-size, fits all

audiences’,’ says Crispin Manners, chief executive of the Argyll Group.

’Many organisations still send out one press release to all media. It’s

barking mad. Not only do you need to understand the media, but also the

different roles of journalists and their individuality. They each have

entirely different motives for running a story.’



’Material is better targeted now,’ says Sarah Jane Evans, associate

editor of BBC Good Food magazine, ’but often the PR story is not the one

I’m interested in. A product usually is not news, but a food trend is

something we’d pick up on. They should present me with ideas, not make

it difficult for me to uncover the real news potential. I want to write

my own story.’



’Where products are concerned, journalists aren’t interested in anything

that isn’t ground-breaking,’ agrees Susan Croft, senior consultant at

Hill & Knowlton. ’Clients need to own the issues, to create a platform,

a forum for debate.’ She believes that UK journalists are following the

US example of assuming a combative, investigative style, which can

stretch a consultant’s skills of diplomacy to the limits.



’They are more sceptical and negative, often coming with an assumption

about something,’ she says. ’We are seeing more journalists taking on

the role of commentator. There is a feeling in the US that the last

presidential election was run by the media, and we are beginning to get

that level of influence here.’



Aloui Booth director Amal Aloui insists that media relations is, and

will always be, difficult, not least because clients tend to think about

the end result - column inches - rather than the means. ’It’s always

high-risk because there’s no guarantee of success. It can be painful to

have to tell a client that their brand has no profile yet, and as such

is of no interest to a news editor, but that kind of honesty is

essential.’



And what of the stories? Harvard’s Boat Race turkey suggests a more

discerning public. But the belief that attention spans are getting

shorter requires information to be parcelled into soundbites: an

approach many business clients feel is too superficial.



Real creativity lies not in PR set pieces, but in the ability to build a

functioning, two-way relationship with media individuals. ’Being one

step ahead of journalists, finding out what they’re working on and what

information they need, is much more productive,’ says Samantha Munro,

head of consumer PR at Grant Butler Coomber.



Meanwhile, as a reminder of the media’s dependence on PR, just persuade

Richard Branson to let you photograph him doing anything. You will see

grown-up picture editors weep. As Wheeler says: ’he is so necessary to

the media that he will not be allowed to die in the normal human way.’



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