Marketing directors and senior management who come to work in the UK from overseas are likely to be prepared for the weather and early pub closing hours, but the close scrutiny from the UK’s notoriously aggressive trade and consumer media may come as something of a shock.
However, a spot of training in media handling might help prevent some of the more damaging statements that unprepared executives are liable to issue. Nestlé Rowntree UK managing director Chris White is understood to be seeking the advice of PR guru Matthew Freud after a run of disastrous stories following a frank interview with journalists (MW February 12).
His comments about the confectionery giant being “in crisis” attracted the media spotlight and made ITV News at Ten.
White, a New Zealander who has spent time working in China, Hong Kong and Thailand, is not alone in finding the UK media a shock to the system. Pierre Yves (PY) Gerbeau, now chief executive of leisure park group X-Leisure, faced a frenzy of media interest when he took over as head of the Millennium Dome, a project steeped in controversy before he had even stepped off the plane.
PY Gerbeau says: “The UK media is very personal compared to the press in continental Europe, which is more likely to attack your business strategy than you. It was a very rude awakening. It is more intrusive compared to other media markets and it can get quite nasty, but if you sit at the top of the tree you have to be accountable.”
The personal nature of criticism from the media makes it very hard to be brutally honest with the UK press, according to South African Matthew Bull, chief executive of advertising agency Lowe. He says there is a different set of rules to handling the press in the UK, which he finds ironic considering that, in theory, it is a far more polite society. “In the UK, the journalists go straight for the jugular, whereas in South Africa there is more respect for someone’s personal life,” he adds.
Industry observers say that the main difference between the UK’s press and other countries’ is simply that there are more titles, particularly trade magazines, covering a wide variety of subjects.
Marketing Week columnist George Pitcher, a partner at communications management firm Luther Pendragon, believes that the trade press creates a peculiar pressure on UK business. He says: “It means that marketers that come from different countries are not always as media savvy and so have not honed their skills in the same way.”
This should not stop talented people from coming to the UK to work. Indeed, the growth of the international power brand means that it should be easier than ever for marketers to move around the global market.
Industry experts believe the similarities between markets are more marked than the differences. Catalyst Marketing Services director Paul Cousins says that there are differences in taste and style but that is where it ends. He says: “Generally, I think that the most striking thing is how similar the markets are now.”
That said, incoming staff do need to listen to their longer-serving colleagues while they settle into the role. Zachary Leonard, the American managing director of the Financial Times, says that you cannot assume that all markets are going to be exactly the same: “You have to be open to changing your business style and you have to really start listening and learning.”
But for many, the most dramatic change will be the sophistication of the UK press, and for this reason media training is probably the key to building successful relationships. Gerbeau says that some training would have helped to prepare him for the onslaught of publicity that he received.
Being prepared to play the game and work with the media is preferable to a complete blackout. Pitcher points out that it is far better to engage with the press and to shrug off the negative stories. He says that the best operators are those who come back to a reporter who has written a negative story with an even-tempered attitude.
Gerbeau believes that the key to making relations work is to be honest with the press, as it makes you seem transparent and accessible and reporters will respect you for that. “It is a good idea to get advice, but it must be you that makes the call,” he says. “If statements are overly checked by PRs, you start to look unapproachable.”
He adds: “The media will be inquisitive, but if you tell it as it is then you won’t get shot for it.”