Public relations has taken a bit of a high profile kicking lately, whether it’s Robert Peston claiming that “PRs are the enemy” or, more offensively, Nick Cohen’s latest rant stating that we were variously “the nearest thing to prostitutes you can find in public life”, “vermin” and “dandruff-ridden”. I’m not going to waste much time here rebutting either of these pieces. I have a great deal of respect for Robert Peston and I think he raises some interesting points, albeit from a media-centric point of view, that no longer understands what public relations is. Nick Cohen, on the other hand, seems to be peddling polemic, for the sake of exposure and building his brand. It’s the latter of these that is most concerning, and that we need to nip in the bud.
I think it is fair to say that whatever your opinion on Peston’s speech, his comments came from a place that was looking to protect an industry that has not yet developed a model that deals successfully with disruption from the internet and mobile. To be honest, it’s what you would expect from a world-class journalist concerned for the future of the media. The net result however, was outrage from both sides of the fence and a debate that was less considered and more digging the trenches and preparing for war. The communications industry was up in arms, and once again the game of Hacks vs Flacks took centre stage in the media. More concerning, instead of trying to educate about what the future of communications really is, there was much angry shouting and very little resolution.
On Nick Cohen, the industry remains relatively silent. Perhaps because he’s not quite got the clout that Peston does, or perhaps because his piece was so personally insulting that it’s hard to come up with a considered response. It seems to me that following the mass coverage and online furore around Peston’s speech, that Cohen wanted a bit of the action. Certainly it’s a piece designed to raise temperatures and create conflict. This worries me. Have we sparked off a descent where all and only coverage of the PR industry is about how we’re ruining journalism? Is this the second in a line of journalists kicking off publicly about how we’re not to be trusted? Must we forever be trapped in a cycle of Hacks sounding off about Flacks and Flacks hitting back just as hard?
Part of the problem is that the PR industry is all too happy to jump on the bandwagon. For many, Peston’s remarks were seen as an opportunity to get coverage and be seen to be standing up for the industry. And of course, the more outrageous your response, the more likely it is to be picked up. But this approach isn’t helping anybody. It just further deepens the divide between two industries that both need each other to survive.
Instead, we should be looking to build relationships and demonstrate that we provide value to both our clients and journalists alike. And we do. I know countless reporters and editors who will, and happily do, speak out about how useful great PRs are. After all, they realise it is us who spend significant amounts of time convincing our clients that the press release they want to put out is marketing rather than news and therefore not of interest. It’s also us who wade through reams of marketing material, or unsurprising research, to find the one nugget of information that might actually be of interest to our journalist counterparts. It’s also almost always us battling the lawyers to convince our clients to speak in the face of a crisis, when the lawyers are demanding they keep their mouths shut at all cost. To be honest, in the case of some businesses it’s us convincing them that they should be speaking to the media at all in the first place.
Communications is a broad church these days, but media relations will always be part of the mix. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be a battle and, quite frankly, it shouldn’t be. Both Peston and Cohen suggest that they see PRs as guard dogs, preventing them access to spokespeople and stories. In my opinion, if we are doing that it’s bad media relations. Most of the comms people I know work tirelessly to open the communications channels and help businesses engage with all their public stakeholders, whether that’s the business media, employees or NGOs.
We have to remember that we are in the business of public relations, which, unsurprisingly, is all about building trusted relationships. Whether communicating directly through sales or customer services, or via old or new media, good reputations only exist when there is open and transparent two-way dialogue. To change the debate we need less grandstanding and more relationship building. So how about instead of fighting on Twitter, and contributing to the atmosphere of opposition and distrust, we all go about our jobs, being the best that we can be, and demonstrating once and for all that a professional relationship with a great PR can be one of the best weapons in a journalist’s armoury.