The recent dramatic fall in newspaper circulation and advertising revenue – especially among regional daily and local weekly newspapers -- could have a profound effect on the public relations industry. Such has been the loss of jobs among reporters and sub-editors, that in one respect the pr industry might gain. Journalists are already over dependent on the constant supply of news and information being issued by the public relations and public affairs industries and that over-reliance is bound to get worse, making it ever more likely that news releases will be published without the kind of journalistic challenges and checks that should have been made.
But a much more worrying consequence is that with far fewer job opportunities in the local press, the pr industry will find it far harder in years to come to find a ready-made supply of new recruits who have had that all-important training on local newspapers. What has helped make Britain’s public relations industry a world leader is that it has always had to face the most competitive media market place of any advanced country. Our newspapers have higher circulations than in any other English-speaking nation; our radio and television services have editorial standards which are the envy of the world; and it is this vibrancy which has helped make the British pr industry what it is today. We should never forget that our creative industries are second only to financial services in what they secure in overseas earnings. Our newspapers have always played a vital role in what makes Britain tick. They have a great tradition when it comes to commanding the news agenda and to campaigning on issues of public interest. Their coverage feeds through into radio and television and helps shape our popular culture. The bedrock of our journalism has always been the local press, where so many of our greatest journalists cut their teeth. But up and down the land famous regional and local titles are being forced to the wall. In the last twelve months scores of papers have closed, hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs and many hundreds more jobs are at risk. Earlier this week the Daily Mail group announced that it was cutting 1,000 jobs in its local newspapers. Many ex journalists have now joined former colleagues who have already made the switch from journalism to public relations. Local councils, hospital trusts and police authorities offer journalists secure jobs in their communications departments. In recent years the public services have recruited heavily, offering employment opportunities which can rival those in the private and commercial sectors. And local authority pr departments – just like the local papers – do provide a stepping stone to a job in London, usually in one of the big pr agencies or corporate communications. The public sector needs journalists for their public relations and public affairs departments because effective communications – whether in the press, television and radio, on the internet or face to face with the public – now has such a high priority in publicly-funded organisations. Public relations, be it the public or private sector, offers salaries – and a career structure – which cannot be matched in much of the media, and especially in the local and regional press. This is the bottom line which explains the exodus that has taken place. As a former local newspaper reporter myself -- I left school at sixteen and became an indentured apprentice journalist on a local evening newspaper – I think the balance has swung too far. As young reporters in the 1960s we used to spend our time reporting council meeting and court cases; we had to work out the story line; we had to be fast; and we had to be accurate. It was in the 1960s and 1970s that the public relations industry really began to take off in Britain; newspapers had more space for feature articles and coverage about the leisure and home; radio and television were also expanding. Aggressive companies, with products and services to sell, understood the importance of influencing editorial coverage; they realised that advertising on its own was not enough. Powerful corporations and companies had to have a strategy to communicate, whether the objective was to beat their competitors, promote new policies or products, or perhaps defend themselves against inaccurate or damaging publicity. The difference between the 1960s and 1970s and now is that the pr industry is in a dominant position; it controls the flow of information from big companies, government departments and public corporations; pr executives are the gatekeepers to that information; they control the access and whether it is to politicians, celebrities or executives. All too often it is the public relations executive or spin doctor who has the final say as to whether the journalist will get an interview or photograph. So while the national newspapers do still set the agenda, while they do create the narrative for the story lines of today, more journalists than ever before are now processing material sent to them by the pr industry. Instead of going out and collecting information, reporting what is happening, they are tied to their computer screens, using information which is supplied to them. Council meetings and court cases are no longer being covered in anything like the depth they once were; indeed many go unreported altogether. It is the communications staff in the councils, in the hospital trusts, in the police authorities and so on who do so much of the local “reporting” that now takes place and it is their news releases which often get straight into the local press. Some papers are so short staffed they literally do a cut and paste job – putting news releases directly onto the newspaper page, hardly changing them in the process. The danger is that journalists are at risk of being manipulated, that they take information without checking and get too dependent on sources who can supply them exclusive stories on a plate, without the investigative work that is really necessary. Financial journalists were one of the first groups to be systematically targeted by the pr industry, from about the 1980s onwards. What happened was that under the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, after the defeat of trade union power in the 1980s, we saw the City of London take off as a financial centre. Most of Britain’s nationalised industries were privatised; share ownership expanded because cheap shares were made available to the public; and with light touch regulation it was boom time in the city. The newspapers which found they had more and more editorial space expanded their coverage of financial news; there was lots of advertising for new tax free savings products; and the pr companies realised that they could influence the coverage…and, in the process, help their clients make money. Last week I mentioned the financial public relations consultant Brian Basham who advised Peter Mandelson that information could be traded like a currency. What he had realised was that with the introduction of new technology, journalists were tied increasingly to their desks. With the defeat of the print trade unions and the exodus of newspapers from Fleet Street to new printing plants, journalists were more isolated than before, and more dependent on information supplied by the pr industry. What we saw in the late 1980s was the development of the notorious “Friday night drop”. A financial pr company would drop off exclusive information – perhaps about a new city take-over bid or share offer – and give it to a sympathetic journalist on a Sunday newspaper. It would happen after the Stock Market closed on Friday afternoon. The aim was to get a favourable story up and running in the financial pages of one of the influential Sunday newspapers in the hope of influencing opinion ready for when the Stock Market opened on Monday morning. The abuse of the “Friday night drop” became so serious – because it encouraged profitable insider trading – that it was eventually outlawed by the Financial Services Agency. Market sensitive information now has to be released when the Stock Market is open. If you listen to the radio at breakfast time, you will often hear hot financial news – about a take-over or profit or loss announcement – having just been released. It is an offence to do it when the markets are not open. Financial public relations has become an important tool for the City of London – managing the news media is all important. But it has brought with it manipulative techniques which have damaged the independence of journalists. I described last week how the party political spin doctors at Westminster exploit that same unending demand for exclusive stories. So the realisation that the power often lies with the holder of the information – and that it can be traded for favourable coverage – has become deeply entrenched within the pr industry. We can see the impact all around in art and entertainment, sport and the whole world of celebrity. Whether it is footballers, film stars or television personalities, they all realise that access to them and the release of information about themselves can be controlled and in many cases can provide a significant source of income. A pr consultant usually works hand in had with a celebrity’s agent. For example, interviews are timed to promote the latest film or perhaps only conducted on condition that a footballer can promote one of his sponsors. A fee can often be demanded for an exclusive story or photo-opportunity; the pr consultant might also demand the right to control the way the story and picture are presented. It is called copy and picture approval. The evidence is there before our eyes: an exclusive interview with a footballer has him wearing the shirt or boots of a sponsor; when the BBC – yes even the BBC – carries an exclusive report in the Ten O’clock News about a film star visiting London for the latest premiere, if you look carefully you can tell the interview was a carefully controlled photo opportunity. The celebrity tends to be filmed in a sympathetic setting, the television shot is framed in a way that suits the star’s features and appearance. What literally happens is that the film studio has complete control. All the journalist can do – and they often have to queue up for the privilege -- is ask a question and they then get handed the video with the footage shot by the company’s own camera crew. Why do journalists go along with this? The reality is that the competition is so intense and demand for exclusives so insatiable, that the pr companies can -- and do -- call the shots. This has debased a lot of news coverage of sport and entertainment. Back in the 1960s and 1970s journalists almost always had access to celebrities; sports reporters talked all the time to footballers; even a local reporter like myself could talk to visiting stars and celebrities. Now that access is tightly controlled and journalists have been forced to live with this. When an interview takes place certain subjects can be off-limits; photographs often have to include subtle product placement. The journalist who fails to play by the rules – or who tries to stitch up a celebrity – can find they are excluded in the future. We see this with what have become known as the 3am girls, the women reporters who cover celebrity news for newspapers like the Daily Mirror and the Sun. They have to deliver stories about celebrities; if possible, they like to be photographed with a celebrity; and not surprisingly much of their coverage is sycophantic. But as you are all well aware there is another side to the coin: if the newspapers decide that it is time to turn the tables and turn over that celebrity then anything goes. Day after day the papers are filled with stories which are often intrusive and highly damaging. If a celebrity is in the firing line – if that person is going to be stitched up, perhaps a footballer is being done over with a kiss-and-tell exclusive – then there is very little a pr can do to save them. It is often hard to get to grips with what it was that turned the coverage of a star’s private life from positive to negative but that is the moment when the celebrity and his or her pr agent can no longer dictate terms to the media. There are publicists who can help in such situations and by far the most celebrated is Max Clifford. He operates outside the recognised pr industry; he is not a member of professional bodies like the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. He is not bound by the industry’s accepted code of conduct on ethical behaviour and is quite prepared if necessary to mislead journalists and even lie to them; he says that journalists tell lies and when it comes to telling the truth he can be just as creative as the media.
Clifford – who has gained so much personal publicity as a result of representing the television reality star Jade Goody – takes a 20 per cent cut of whatever his clients earn through selling exclusive stories, press and television interviews, photo-opportunities and so on. But what is even more remarkable is that Clifford says he earns most of his money by keeping stories out of the papers. And it is at this point that I think Clifford has done a grave disservice to journalism. If we take the case of David Bekcham and Rebecca Loos. She was his former personal assistant and she made three quarters of a million out her celebrated kiss-and-tell story about having an affair with him. Clifford represented Loos and there is no doubt that he did a remarkable job on her behalf in talking up her potential earnings. But he says he would have been just as happy representing Beckham and was confident he could have kept the story out the papers. His alternative strategy involved what would have happened to the mobile phone on which Rebecca had kept all Beckham’s text messages. It was because she had these text messages – proving there had been a relationship – that the News of the World decided to run the story. What Clifford would have done was ensure that Beckham gave the mobile to a friend; he would have said he was the one who received Rebecca’s texts and would have been prepared to say so in court. That ploy would have been enough to frighten off the News of the World. But that would have been a deception.The fact that Clifford would have encouraged journalists to accept a lie is why I believe it is wrong for the media to present him to the public as though he was an independent authority on celebrity life. Clifford has done something few other publicists have achieved: he is a player himself, he has probably engineered the very story he is talking about, but he is still treated by the media as a fair minded pundit. You can read more about my views on Clifford on my news archive: www.nicholasjones.org.uk
But it is important we end on a positive note. Each year I give a lecture at a course for trainee information officers who are working for government department and public services. There is no doubt they are really committed to their work; they understand how through improved communication they can help the delivery of public services. Whether it is care for the elderly, better health services or whatever, their aim is to use the news media for the general good. I see the fruits of their work at the annual pr awards organised by the magazine PR Week. Some of their campaigns are so imaginative and hence so effective that they do help change public attitudes. That is why as a journalist I am not against the public relations industry; I understand that in the pressurised world of 24/7 reporting, public authorities need to know how to respond, just as the commercial sector has to face up to the demands of the market or go under. What saddens me though is that journalism is losing out so heavily to the pr industry. It can offer better wages and a career structure at a time when editorial budgets have been dramatically reduced and investigative reporting is a shadow of what it once was. I am fearful for the future effectiveness of the mainstream media. I know from well-placed corporate press officers that they believe they can influence – even control – specialist news coverage in so many areas of commercial life. The drug industry is a case in point: it believes is does have fairly tight control over the flow of information about new medicines in newspapers and magazines and on television and radio. Where the drug companies are more fearful is over the internet where it can be far harder to moderate let alone influence the debate about new drugs and their safety and effectiveness. No wonder the big companies – and government departments – are working on programmes to monitor the chatter on websites and social networking sites so that they can get advance warning of trends and perhaps scare stories. Nicholas Jones was speaking to students at the University of East London (26.3.2009).