If journalists have a narrow view of PR, we have o
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If journalists have a narrow view of PR, we have o

Paul Holmes

When a Financial Times with the headline “Publicity is Free with No PRs” hit my inbox earlier this week, I didn’t bother clicking on it because I assumed it was just more PR-baiting, of the kind journalists indulge in every now and again when they are feeling especially insecure about their place in the world. (Plus, it used the irritating British term ‘PRs.’ I still have no idea what that stands for. Public relators?) But Christopher Graves, CEO of Ogilvy Public Relations and a former journalist himself (with a resume much more credible for this kind of thing than my own, since he worked for both the FT and later The Wall Street Journal) took the time to respond, and said a lot of the things I would have said. Most journalists, according to Graves “assume PR is the worst of both worlds: they are flacks taking the fire from the enemy journos while isolating their top execs from real reporting; or they pitch self-serving, thinly-veiled adverts as irrelevant stories at the wrong time to the wrong reporter. I once held that view, too. “But today, public relations requires a fairly comprehensive understanding of behavioural economics and managing human cognitive biases coupled with a mastery of narrative theory. You must understand how to craft narratives that are credible, defensible, informative but emotionally engaging, and must learn to do so across all forms of storytelling, from Vine 6-second videos, to Pinterest snapshots, to long-form essays.” For the record, the original article discusses Hargreaves Lansdown, an independent financial advisory firm, which “does not employ an individual or team whose sole responsibility is public relations. “Instead the FTSE 100 listed company devolves the role of liaising with the press to five executives who are also experts in the company’s affairs, such as financial planning or pensions. The benefit of such an arrangement, says [co-founder Peter] Hargreaves, is that ‘a journalist can talk to someone immediately who is knowledgable on a financial subject. It gives a better service than putting a team of people in the middle between the journalist and the expert.’” I don’t necessarily believe that’s a bad idea. In fact, I am in violent agreement with the implication that any company that uses its PR department as a barrier between reporters and sources who are more qualified to speak on a particular topic—or worse yet, in a vain attempt to “control the message”—is at the very least missing an opportunity, and is at worst counterproductive. (The same point is made eloquently in this letter to the FT editor from David Flynn of UK PR firm Eulogy!) Having said all that, stories like this are at least partly our fault. We have collectively, in the UK and the US and most other developed markets, spent decades training not only the media but our clients to believe that the primary role of a public relations department is to deal with reporters, to deliver (or occasionally prevent) only earned media. We have not only allowed but encouraged clients and reporters to see PR as mere communications (and often, as only one aspect of communications—talking rather than listening) rather than as the policy-level function our industry’s pioneers and leaders like Graves believe it should be. Under the circumstances, it’s hard to blame journalists if their views are, as Graves says, “mean-spirited and ignorant.”  
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