Direct action

6 June 2010

The often less-than-happy link between journalism and PR is breaking apart as PRs look to do more that is aimed direct at consumers, as reported in the Independent. To be honest, I thought trade/B2B sector would see this first, pointing to the possibility back in 2007. I forgot to factor in the larger amount of money that goes into consumer PR, which could translate into a greater willingness to take chances.

Despite an apparent trend driven by appointments of journalists by PRs that are not account-director roles, it's worth having a closer look at the examples of direct PR that Edelman cites. They are not dramatically different from the work already done by agencies where they expected just press coverage in the past or were creating material for user or sales meetings.

Although PRs might have grasped the idea that direct communication with consumers is worthwhile, there is a big question mark over whether their clients will like what they plan. The advantage for the PR of having the press in the way is, to an extent, deniability. They might be aware of the consequences of using a particular approach but if it goes pear-shaped, it's still possible to blame the journalist for "misunderstanding the message". If you take away that layer, the people in charge of promotion or engagement or whatever you want to call it are far more exposed.

So, in the short term, I'd expect the opposite of what should happen to take place. The trend in recent years, despite all the talk about engagement and two-way communication, has been to sell, sell, sell. Don't go off-message, no matter how dull that message might be. Because no-one is going to get fired for sticking to the pre-approved script. At least not until companies start to see their profiles become less and less prominent. Then they might have a go at proper communication.

This will have an effect on the way the media operates but learning to work around the relentless stream of dull, self-serving messages has been part of the game for a while.


Surely a senior Edelman flack can't have missed the fact that whilst you can grow your own integrity, 'credibility' only comes from independent verification by a trusted and authoritative organisation like a national newspaper. Whether the Indy is still a trusted and authoritative source, is an open question. On the basis of the fact that it published the 'dull, self-serving messages' in this interview without challenge I'd say not.

It goes to show that credibility is a fragile thing, but it can be earned. If companies are (apparently) more honest in their publicity, they will build more credibility, up to a limit - and beyond that limit is where the news providers need to be. The question is whether companies will take the risk of saying "we got this wrong, but we're doing this about it" unprompted.

It's hard to tell what journalism is going to evolve into but I can't believe that it will look like PR produced infomercials. At some point the tension between serving the audience and serving the client becomes too much.

For new entrants an independent press of some sort would seem to be essential. At a minimum you can't interview yourself so an independent perspective is critical, I think the challenge we have is that traditional economic models for journalism are obsolete and we have not developed new ones.