Spinning out

PR professionals are under pressure to satisfy clients, a news-hungry market and a cynical public all at the same time. But a fragmenting media threatens to be even more problematic.

General election campaigning has resulted in a number of PR disasters, with spin-heavy electioneering backfiring on both the Tories and New Labour.

Tony Blair’s announcement of the election date while seated next to the wary headmistress of a carefully chosen school, as a choir sang on and on in front of increasingly bored journalists, was widely derided in the press.

The same could be said for Baroness Thatcher’s “Return of the Mummy” speech and her stay-out-of-Europe-forever bombshell. Both stage-managed events may have seemed good ideas, but instead led to renewed public cynicism about political PR being the main issue at the end of the campaigning day.

But it is not only in politics that this style of spin-heavy PR has flourished. Increased media fragmentation has been followed by a news-hungry market crying out for stories. This rapidly developing client base is putting pressure on PR professionals to come up with campaigns that give clients the column inches they demand.

The temptation is to create a quick-fix campaign that will spread itself across the entire market – TV, Internet, satellite, digital and the press.

When teen-friendly pop band S Club 7 saw its thunder being stolen by new pop group Hear’Say, the subsequent cannabis-smoking scandal which guaranteed media coverage had a whiff of spin about it.

However, as the media becomes more diverse, the risk is that so will the PR industry and the effectiveness of campaigns.

Flexible discipline

John Levick, managing director of PR/marketing consultancy VLP, disagrees, not surprisingly, with this analysis, and sees fragmentation of the media as a challenge the industry can adapt to.

“PR can jump from one communication channel to another, creating its own ‘message momentum’ in the process,” he explains. “It has always been a flexible discipline that embraces different media and encourages the crosspollination of many information channels.”

But there are real fears the surge in new media channels is making the public weary and cynical, as high-profile PR campaigns emerge almost every day.

The result is that press announcements that do have an important message are often derided as blatant opportunism or outright lies by an increasingly sceptical public.

Vicki Hughes, a director at Midnight Communications, an Internet specialist PR agency, believes this scepticism, rather than hindering the industry, is actually beneficial.

“We do have an increasingly cynical public but this is good as it keeps us aware of news value and the credibility of our messages,” says Hughes.

The rise in popularity of the 24-hour news channel has also prompted an unprecedented thirst for stories. This inevitably leads to a lowering of standards in terms of what news channels will accept.

Deputy chief executive of communications consultancy Kaizo Ken Deeks says:”To see companies that really should know better condoning the use of cheap, tacky publicity stunts in order to secure column inches is demoralising.”

He believes the industry has to start taking itself more seriously in order to survive.

“In the light of increasing numbers of pseudo-PR stories appearing in the news, perhaps the task of explaining what PR is, and what it is not, should begin a little closer to home.”

Facing facts

With PR professionals becoming increasingly desperate for their campaigns to make an impact, often the only way to rise above the crowd is to rely on the industry safety valve of hiring a “face” – preferably one of the moment.

But Levick is sceptical of this increasingly popular style of promotion: “Celebrity endorsement is just one tactic used to raise awareness. Most PR activity, however, is not in the media spotlight and not necessarily visible. The results of it may be, but not the activity itself.

“Today’s public is very media and PR-savvy. They don’t get wowed by any old cheesy endorsement. For any PR stunt to really take off, it needs to engage and challenge the audience – not simply wheel out Carol Vorderman.”

There have also been an increasing number of PR clangers that have served to tarnish the industry’s reputation. Media “events” such as Geri Halliwell’s press-friendly ‘romance’ with Chris Evans – which boosted sales of her album – or Anthea Turner’s much-denied but still humiliating “Snowflake” wedding, courtesy of Cadbury, are the kinds of high-profile promotional blunders the public doesn’t forget easily.

Add to this the high profile of Tony Blair’s Rasputin-like master of spin, Alastair Campbell, and publicity supremo Max Clifford, and one could get the impression of an industry spinning out of control.

Deeks says: “A corporate reputation cannot be built overnight – that is the critical point being missed by organisations and agencies that get sucked into spinning lightweight stories as a way of achieving a quick press splash.”

Hughes agrees: “PR can now avoid the scatter-gun approach of communicating with everyone who has a vague interest in their field. Instead they can target journalists more effectively, speaking to specific markets in their language rather than trying to generalise stories to suit a number of markets.”

Force-feeding a fragmented media with increasingly ineffectual campaigns will not build a long-lasting corporate reputation for clients who, in trying to master all areas of the market, end up never succeeding in any.

Sharon Murphy, associate director of communications agency Fishburn Hedges, says a way to avoid such poorly targeted campaigning is for the PR industry to encourage clients to position themselves as providers of useful information – rather than focusing only on plugging a product. They should give the target media the information needed to put the message across.

She says:”This will ensure the client’s brand is associated with information relevant to the target audience,”

In return for prov iding information, the client can get coverage in a publication or programme, that would normally never mention them.”

Fishburn Hedges used this approach by launching what it calls an advisory press release, with specialist insurer Hiscox focusing on the idea of planting “prickly shrubs” outside windows in order to improve home security and deter burglars. The gardening and home interest sector picked up on this and Hiscox found itself with increased brand awareness in a market that “rarely even mentions the word insurance”.

A more strategic approach to PR often means a greater awareness of brand and target market. One of the areas where this intelligent PR is particularly required, along with technological skills, is on the Internet. Many clients are still afraid to invest large amounts of money into such a hi-tech market. The rise and fall of dot-com companies is a constant reminder the Internet is still a medium under construction, and possibly more of a long-term option than a current dead cert.

The right approach

But the PR industry can only corner such high-potential markets successfully by developing and training staff and clients in the necessary hi-tech skills.

Link that specialisation to a more userand public-friendly approach to PR, and the profession might just find itself back in the public’s good books again.

Levick believes the Internet is “one of the main drivers for both media and PR growth”, but is unsure how many in the PR sector accepted such developments.

He adds:”Many practitioners have yet to adapt to this shift in the communications model. Those that do realise its importance tend to develop stand-alone divisions specialising in Internet techniques. This misses the point,”

“A PR agency has to be able to deliver coherent and integrated messages across a range of media, both online and offline. By handling internet services separately, many agencies are unable to offer the necessary integration and flexibility.”

But PR that spreads itself too thinly across an increasingly diverse media is bound to suffer from a dilution of quality and content.

That’s why it’s important for the industry to target the market areas most suitable to each client’s needs.

If it does not, then flash-and-burn spin techniques used across the more traditional media will filter through into hi-tech areas where it hasn’t had the time to be as all-consuming.

It may already be too late. Helen Yeardsley, a director at Midnight Communications, says: “It’s definitely much harder to convince the IT and Internet press that a story is newsworthy. Journalists in this sector are already at the stage where they have been there and heard it all before.”

So the future of PR under the shadow of a fragmented media is still one of uncertainty, with even specialist areas such as the Internet already showing the potential to become as overcrowded and as obsessed with spin as the more traditional media.

And if one thing can be guaranteed, it is that any rich new veins of hi-tech spin discovered as a result will be mined until media-dry.

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