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
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
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
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
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.’