What is the point of a press office?

Is the purpose of a press office to respond to enquiries from journalists – or these days, is the function more about getting out messages than providing a service to the media? 

It may seem rather passive to see the function as supporting the media’s need to report information, accurately and on a timely basis – although that is the view that many journalists have of the ideal PR role.  Building a reputation as a quality source – honest, reliable and knowledgeable – should then be a primary goal of the press office function.

Most press officers are expected to be more pro-active than this and focus on informing, persuading or engaging audiences.  The goal is to gain coverage using creativity and stunts where the organisation isn’t actually doing anything worthy of stimulating positive media attention.  Lies and any other tactic, from bribery to bullying, fakery to flirting are all used to get what you want from the media.

Or the press office is seen as comprising pit-bull terriers who defend the organisation against hostile media always looking for the negative angle.  The media get in the way of the organisation communicating its message and journalists must be controlled and prevented to talking to anyone other than the press office function.

The view is that organisations have a right to coverage when they want it – but only on their “say something nice” terms.

PRWeek recently reported that Hammersmith & Fulham Council in London is reducing the number of press officers in its team as it prioritises its own publication, H&F News.  The move is claimed to have improved resident information ratings and bypassed negative reporting from local newspapers.  We have resident journalists providing entirely favourable coverage.

This implies readers do not value the independence of the media and accept messages direct from organisations without question.  At best, this seems like a move towards direct marketing – at worst, it can be seen as propaganda; especially if there is a threat to the financial viability of an independent local newspaper as it is replaced by publications that are funded by the originators.

Another threat to the press office can be seen in a post at My2Cents (via Judy Gombita) that notes how the distinction between news editorial and advertising is increasingly blurred.  Practices that were common in less credible trade press (ie publications that generally remain in the plastic wrapper and are never read) are becoming more common in the “quality” media.

This post reports many organisations are happy to buy editorial coverage rather than use PR’s traditional skills of working with the media on genuine (or even fluffy) news stories.   This shifts PR entirely into advertising mode – where those with budgets control the content. 

We already have an army of supposed PR people who market press releases as a form of ‘free’ advertising (and measure coverage using illogical ‘advertising value equivalent’).  But in that case, I believe there should be charge and the label ‘advertorial’ used.

Indeed, such moves may be covered by the EU unfair commercial practices directive (which came into force in the UK on 26 May 2008).  It introduces “a new normative standard of behaviour” that bans:

“Using editorial content in the media to promote a product where a trader has paid for the promotion without making that clear in the content or by images or sounds clearly identifiable by the consumer (advertorial).” This is without prejudice to Council Directive 89/552/EEC.

The public should certainly be able to hear direct from organisations – and “own-label” media (newspapers, magazines, radio/tv stations, online video etc) can all be used to do this. 

But we also need to know where messages are originating from – and have a strong more independent media able to investigate, give a voice to the voiceless, raise questions for public debate and, where appropriate, criticise organisations.

The ability of PR practitioners to control all messages whether by using underhand tactics, the force of budget, defensiveness or offensiveness may seem clever and keep bosses happy.

If the “independent” media ceases to be viewed as credible, and the public see through our direct communications, organisations will seek to influence word of mouth, paying our family and friends to “market” to us because we view them more credibly or seeking to “join the conversation” through social media – whether we welcome them or not.

Is that a role for PR – or is it just marketing and propaganda?

Hopefully, the public voice cannot be so easily silenced – we’re already aware that people are more cynical, resistant and uninterested in what organisations have to say.  The barriers are going up on social media so that only those we invite to participate will be welcome to join our discussions.  Trust will become even more of a precious commodity. 

It will be harder and harder for information to be pushed at the public – which means there may well be a return to the role of the “press office” as a source of accurate and timely information, that can be relied upon as honest, reliable and knowledgeable.

I think it is time to stand up for the passive “press office” – a real service that isn’t pushy, but has an excellent reputation and won’t seek to buy or bully those with whom it communicates. 

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

4 thoughts on “What is the point of a press office?”

  1. The charity I work for uses the press office for both reactive and proactive work.

    We cover all the UK so we talk to all media whether local regional national or specialist.

    We balance reactive tasks like responding to requests for information and case studies with proactive things like letting relevant media know about the events, hoping they will cover them. Usually when we are working proactively, we think of what the reader will want to hear and what the media will want us to supply.

    We like to think we provide entertaining and interesting copy which demonstrates the work that we do, whilst emphasising that we need money to continue our work. We work hard to provide real life stories of people doing real things in exchange for the ‘space’ to promote that event or person.

    Although our work does involve controlling and selling a message, it’s more important than that. We work as part of the official voice of the organisation and the professional means of engaging with the media and overseeing the different channels of communication as required. Surely every organisation should have a voice?

  2. I do agree Serena that press offices need to be both pro-active and reactive, but it seems more and more focus on the controlling and selling than building relationships with journalists and understanding what makes organisations worthy of reporting (what Godin calls remarkable).

    I have no issue with every organisation having a voice – but that doesn’t give them a right to media coverage. Also we’ve two ears and only one mouth for a reason – too many press releases and other missives from press offices seem to be talk for talk’s sake.

    Arguably the most effective communicators are those who don’t talk all the time, but do have something really interesting and useful to say when they speak.

  3. I believe editorial content should be based on its interest to readers and viewers, and not based on whether the information is being paid for. Press offices should be both proactive and reactive, I feel, but they shouldn’t be paying the media to ensure their information runs as news. If they want to pay, then buy an ad that’s clearly identified as an ad.

  4. Agreed David – when I first worked in a press office, we always directed advertising enquiries (however they were disguised) to our colleagues in marketing. We were fortunate however, in reporting direct to the CEO – today in that same company, PR reports to the marketing director. Having said that, when I work for marketing departments as a consultant, I’ve never found it difficult to explain to them the benefits of genuine editorial, especially news.

    It is hard for them when so many publications advise that editorial will be linked to advertising – we’ve heard that even from some national UK newspapers in relation to motoring features recently. The journalists concerned report that they are under pressure to push advertising if they wish to keep motoring in the publication.

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