When PR gets out of the way

The coverage of the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings has been marked in the UK by the voices of the aged veterans reported by the media.  Yes, PR practitioners will have been involved in working with the television and print journalists covering the ceremonies, but it is the individual stories and memories of the once young men that is of poignant interest – and that’s what we’ve heard.

Likewise the tragic murders of Meredith Kercher in Italy and the young french students, Laurent Bonomo and Gabriel Ferez in London, have been brought home through the bravery of their parents, paying their personal tributes, which the media have reported with sensitivity.

In such cases, the involvement of PR practitioners who have professional understanding of the media needs to be minimal – and indeed, it is clear that genuine people are able to speak from their hearts quite honestly without relying on PR advisors.

This is refreshingly in contrast to those who feel the need to call a publicist to exploit their fifteen minutes of fame – whether because they are embroiled in a news story or because they’re a desperate wannabe.

However, there are times where you wonder why there is little evidence of much-needed PR counsel. For example, Susan Boyle must have had media minders to handle the attention that followed her performances on Britain’s Got Talent.  But, there seems to have been a distinct lack of care for the impact of the phenomenal media (and social media) attention she has faced.

Is this a case where the PR involvement was only focused on generating publicity – not recognising the issue that was emerging?  There were certainly plenty of press agents involved in the show at ITV, Freemantle (the production company which appointed Ogilvy to handle publicity for the show), and Simon Cowell’s own PR minder, Max Clifford, to mention a few.

Likewise, with the current Westminster debacle over the expenses and behaviour of members of parliament.  It appears individual MPs have largely been handling their own media relations.  On the whole, they have lacked any dignity or understanding of why they have hit the headlines. Most have appeared to be defensive and surprised at how the media operates.  They seem to have ignored the fact that they could have been proactive and published the information about their expenses rather than waiting for the spotlight of the Daily Telegraph to come their way.

Is it really possible that MPs have such little understanding of media relations – do they normally rely on the party mechanism to spin messages on their behalf?  The Independent reported at the start of 2007, that many politicians actually have backgrounds in PR – so what’s their excuse? 

Individually and collectively the politicians have made a real disaster of managing the reputation of parliament.  I’m not advocating professional PR counsel is required to massage public perceptions, there are more than enough spin-doctors in politics. 

But surely a professional PR approach is needed to manage clear communications for parliament on behalf of the British public, as much as Westminster needs the type of expenses procedure that is common in any commercial organisation.

Mind you, the Scottish Parliament recently received the usual anti-PR criticisms when seeking to appoint an external relations manager.

Perhaps the problem is that PR isn’t always needed and when media relations practitioners do their job well, they don’t get in the way of the story. 

But the spin-doctor and press agentry approaches have created such a bad impression of PR, whilst actually failing to assist those who are the target of considerable media attention.

Todd Defren recently claimed we’re seeing the death of media relations (in favour of public relations).  Jeremy Porter points out, organisations continue to need media relations expert, although he thinks PR’s role will change to more direct public communications rather than through the media.

I wonder if the reality isn’t that we need a new professional approach to media relations that avoids the manipulation of the political spin-doctors and celebrity press agents, to behave a little more like the genuine public who realise the importance of telling an honest story. 

Perhaps if PR practitioners tries a little less hard to get in the way of the media and stop thinking their job is “control” the story, the profession can be seen to be more effective by simply encouraging a more open and honest public information approach.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.