Talk to us…We won't bite

Consulting news organisations is a lot more productive than trying to manipulate them

There is an awful lot of tosh talked about the relationship between the media and the PR industry in all its guises. Maybe Max Clifford and his cronies set agendas. So do plenty of skilled PR types whose work interests other sectors, from the FT to hosts of B2B titles and broadcasting.

It is true that they have plenty of influence, but that is only because it suits the media. It helps us get stories and provides short cuts to facts, particularly when horses’ mouths are not available. But woe betides anyone in PR who talks about “media management” or “controlling the media”. Any hint of such boasting is deservedly a challenge.

The best they can hope for, and the best achieve their dreams regularly, is that they can work with the media.

It is astonishing to read documents called “media plans” drawn up by government departments or big companies, heavily subtitled “managing the media”. By all means have plans, I tell them, but talk to the media first and demonstrate concern to provide facilities and information for journalists.

After all, it is about informing the public through the media. That is an essential public service that benefits everyone.

Usually the penny drops because the message is so plain. It is sad that it is not in the mindset from the outset.

It is certainly the way messages about the benefits of working together got through to emergency planners and the blue light services as a result of the Media Emergencies Forum that brings officials and senior journalists together. It made a difference to planning for disaster in the UK after the errors, or at least missing pieces of jigsaw, emerged in the aftermath of 9/11 in New York.

David Veness, head of Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorism operations, summed up the common interests of government, emergency services and the media perfectly. “When we are rushing to the scene with blue lights flashing and sirens blaring we should be thinking of three things: protecting the public, preserving the crime scene and informing the public through the media,” he said.

Most importantly, he added, those three things have equal priority. The third, involving and working with the media, was as important as the other two. This was a jolt for the official side but a breath of fresh air for the media.

It made emergency planners start thinking about involving real journalists in emergency planning exercises rather than having junior PR staff, who had never set foot in a newsroom, play acting at how the media might behave (badly, of course).

The results can be enlightening.

Journalists who do the reporting and news editors who make impossible demands on them had useful things to say about how the emergency services, and local or national government, might be able to deal with chaos and panic – and help them protect the public. The result of better communication and proper consultation is better planning.

That is what was behind the idea of having a media audit of proposed government legislation.We had a spate of new laws which were apparently nothing to do with the media. They were often well intentioned and largely uncontentious, except that eagle-eyed lawyers such as the Newspaper Society’s head of legal affairs, Santha Rasaiah, would spot a potential pitfall that could hinder the media’s ability to report.

Talk to us first, we said, and we might prevent a lot of wasteful argument.

We may not always agree but at least we should only fall out when we intend to have a row, rather than being trapped into disputes by accident.

As marketing folk say, involve your customers and they will buy. Involve the media and it is more likely to accept that the PR machine is trying to be helpful rather than obstructive. Guidelines or protocols will work far better.

Public relations in its widest sense is behind so much of what government or official organisations want to achieve. They want to create confidence and respect.

Take the courts for example. The first principle of British justice is that it should be fair. The second is that it should be seen to be done.

There were endless disputes about court reporting restrictions before Lord Justice Judge, the deputy chief justice, cut through the rows. He asked Santha Rasaiah and me to help write a guide to court reporting restrictions for judges and magistrates.

Now court reporters across the country regularly persuade courts to lift restriction orders. They are allowed to address the courts and point out where restrictions are unhelpful, inappropriate, or even illegal.

Somehow, sadly, the Crown Prosecution Service did not get the message. It unleashed a fury when it announced new guidelines about the release of prosecution information including photographs, CCTV footage and background material at the end of court cases.

Not only were we incensed, but the police were somewhat concerned that they would not be able to demonstrate their skills and successes.

The CPS is often maligned and still more often misunderstood. It needs to convince the public that it is doing its job. Hopefully now we can sit down with officials and, by being involved, help them build respect for the legal process and create public confidence.

That is marketing and PR. But if they dislike such labels as much as journalists do, they could call it common sense.

Alison Hastings wrote in her last column that “nobody from the regional press was deemed slick or sexy enough” to chair a session at the Society of Editors conference. Far be it for me to question a fellow columnist, especially when she was so generous in her praise of the conference, but I seem to recall that Neil Benson, who stood down as president at the end of the conference, chaired Stewart Purvis’s Society of Editors Lecture and sessions for Sir John Stevens and Michael Howard.

As he works in the regional press, does this officially qualify him as slick and sexy? I think Alison should tell us.

We asked broadcasters to chair sessions and they did it brilliantly. That left editors to concentrate on the important messages our equally brilliant speakers brought them.

It is also important to hear from our broadcasting members because they are competing for the same 15 minutes of time all editors want from their potential audiences, whether they are readers, listeners or viewers.

What’s more, Purvis pointed to a potential goldmine for regional ad managers that could be tapped as TV goes digital. At least one regional newspaper managing director in the audience was seen making copious notes… Anita Syvret, editor of the Gloucestershire Echo, said she felt a bit old-fashioned insisting on reporters filing daily reports on the Legal Aid swindle court case even though none of them could be published for four years because of reporting restrictions.

Other papers and broadcasters did not stay the course and all of Anita’s reporters have moved on. The result was a 24-page supplement, 12 pages of breaking news and, most important, the public’s right to know was upheld.

Call me old-fashioned, but two of the qualities editors should display are stamina and persistence.

Bob Satchwell is the executive director of the Society of Editors

Next week: Janice Turner

by Bob Satchwel

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