The realities of today’s media relations function, which serves a competitive community that never sleeps
Images of three year old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach first appeared in newsrooms on Wednesday morning. Newspapers and broadcasters agonised whether and how to use the shocking images of a dead child.
But despite the unease of these media professionals, the debate was largely academic because within hours the pictures were trending on Twitter and being shared on Facebook. By Friday morning, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron had initiated a hasty rethink of asylum policy, amidst a huge outpouring of charity towards the migrants from the British public.
While the refugee crisis has become the story of late summer in Europe, it is also an example of how foreshortened the news and information cycle has become in the last decade. Stories no longer play out over weeks or even days; they can sometimes come to a head in minutes.
Dominic Fry, director of communications at Marks & Spencer, says the biggest change in media relations in the last decade is not the 24 hour news cycle, but the way that journalists now operate.
‘The way we work is defined by the huge competition now between news outlets. In many cases, the story is not important, it’s whether you got it first. This means that we need people [in the communications team] who think like journalists, can understand how a story is going to evolve and where it will go next,’ Fry explains. ‘I look for the ability to work at pace and speed, because we’re not afforded the thinking time that we used to be.’
Of course problems arise when journalists rush to publish or broadcast. This summer The Times got some figures wrong in a splash about price differentials between high street retailers’ hospital and high street stores. Marks & Spencer insisted on a correction, mostly to deter news outlets that were intent on following up.
‘We had to put a hard stop on it. But you have to do something like that very quickly,’ Fry says.
However, there is still room in the fast-paced news environment for old-fashioned media monitoring methods. Every morning at 6am, Fry will text his chairman and chief executive with a précis of stories that are in that day’s press or running on bulletins about Marks & Spencer. He will also cover stories about health, food and business that have implications for the giant retailer. He prefers to do this work himself, rather than delegate the task, because it means he is across everything. And if there is anything very serious in the press the next day, he will send that text at midnight.
‘It’s a good discipline,’ he remarks. However, he expects a similar level of attention to detail from the agencies and media monitoring companies that Marks hires.
‘Ten years ago, you probably had a daily or weekly update on coverage or a sector. Now I’d expect one four times a day. When it comes to results, I am gathering information from Twitter and from the wires in real time. By the end of a results [conference] call with Marc [Bolland, Marks & Spencer’s chief executive], I will have a good idea of what the response and subsequent coverage will be,’ he says.
Marks & Spencer is a unique company in many ways. ‘The brand is a surrogate for middle England. If you want to write a barometer story, bring M&S into it,’ Fry says. For this reason, the press team spends a lot of time not responding or reacting to questions.
However, Fry still requires his staff to have proactive skills – knowing what is a story and what is a suitable news peg. Spotting opportunities on social media is what he expects his tech savvy comms team – whose average age is 26 – to do.
One example was a couple of years ago, when one of the fashion team spotted Strictly Come Dancing star Tess Daly wearing a Marks & Spencer dress on a US TV channel. They tweeted Love your dress, where’s it from? to the star, who responded saying it was Marks, leading to favourable coverage.
From nothing, the Marks & Spencer’s team has built up huge followings on Twitter and Instagram. In the run-up to last Christmas, 45,000 people followed social media feeds of unknown ‘fairies’ doing good deeds such as making it snow in Cornwall for school children.
Finally, it was revealed that the retailer was behind the campaign.
The retailer also managed to turn an issue to its advantage when they responded to a campaign over the premium price of larger-sized bras. Initially, there was a reluctance to apologise. But when the company admitted it was wrong, after days of negative stories, with a huge We boobed advertising campaign, and 20 per cent off all lingerie, sales increased dramatically.
‘Journalists thought that was a stunt but it wasn’t. We were responding to a genuine campaign and eventually turned it around,’ Fry says. T
he company’s executive team understands clearly the need for rapid response in dealing with the media. It helps that Fry and the chief executive have spent a lot of time considering and discussing tone of voice and sentiment in communications.
A few years ago, Marks & Spencer’s keenly awaited third quarter numbers were leaked to Mark Kleinman, the prolific Sky News City editor, at around 6.20pm, just as most business editors are deciding what goes on the first page of the next day’s section. ‘By 9pm we had done everything we were planning to do the next day: a call with journalists and the executive team, an analysts’ call. We had to respond very quickly because we have a listing in New York, so potentially people were trading in a false market,’ Fry recalls.
Another company that is never far from the news pages is Network Rail. The railway operator has its share of crisis communications most years, including this one, and can often find that the 24-hour news light falls on the railway at times when other sources of stories – Whitehall or the stockmarkets – are officially on holiday.
Kevin Groves, head of media at Network Rail, agrees with Fry that the way news organisations break news has had a big impact on the media relations function.
'Some newspapers now have a digital first rule. In practical terms this means that the concept of deadlines and time to look into an issue in some depth and consider your response and go through a lengthy internal sign-off process is long gone. Speed of response and very rapid rebuttal is essential in mitigating the possibility of a story getting away from you,’ he explains.
At Network Rail, this shift has resulted in new procedures such as when signing off a reactive press statement. Use and monitoring of social media is also essential. ‘Twitter can act as an early warning system for an emerging operational issue and as a tool to get out latest information and to close down erroneous rumours and myths,’ Groves says.
The volume and speed of information out there means that Network Rail relies on a virtual press office software system. ‘With it we can see and understand all the interaction and conversations that the media team across the country have had with journalists. It means we can respond out of hours much better as whoever is on call can see the latest situation and see the latest statements on any issue.’
Any of the communications team can control the media centre section of the Network Rail website. They can put out statements or issue stories with pictures and video from the comfort of home, something which is considered essential in an operational business where things change hour by hour.
Daily working patterns are changing beyond press offices. In most businesses, people are working all the time these days. As Fry says, semi-jokingly: ‘I’ve done some of my best work on a Saturday morning, at a supermarket checkout. No-one apologises for calling at the weekend anymore.’
Groves agrees: ‘Calls at the weekend or late at night are now run-of-the-mill. Traditionally, the on-call press officer was an emergency response service, but increasingly we find routine media work, such as making arrangements to set up for filming, being conducted out of hours.’
This constant pressure does not necessarily lead to swelling ranks of communicators. Everyone just does more. As for recruits to the press office, until they are immersed in a crisis they are, Grove says, ‘absolutely not prepared for the demands and potential implications on their private or family life to manage the needs of 24 hour news.’
Giles Croot, newly appointed head of communications and investor relations at Balfour Beatty, points to Jeff Randall’s farewell column for The Daily Telegraph, as an illustration of how things have changed. Writing on stepping down from a 30 year career as a financial journalist, the former Sunday Times City editor and presenter of his eponymous Sky News business show, described the day in August 1986 when he took up his first Fleet Street role at the Daily Telegraph.
At a stroke, the 31-year old’s salary leapt by 30 per cent to £21,000, about £52,000 in today’s money. Croot points out that a reporter with their first job on a newspaper or with a newswire or broadcaster would now earn considerably less and would probably be quite a bit younger, with commensurately less experience.
In the last decade, papers have cut reporting staff back to the bone. Reporters know less about their subject, have less time to research, are being pulled in all directions by their superiors and are probably working much longer hours.
‘You need to understand your area better than you did: with fewer sector specialist and journalists covering such wide beats you have to be prepared to fill in the gaps in their knowledge. Dealing with a breaking story also takes much longer – often you have to explain all the background to people who don’t follow the company or sector, it’s not possible for journalists to be up to speed on everything or have the benefit of ten years reporting a beat,’ Croot says.
As far as social media is concerned, Croot finds dealing with erroneous reports or unfair criticism is much harder than in a traditional media context. ‘If a newspaper has uncovered something heinous, there is usually time to get your ducks in a row but now a story can erupt on social media much more quickly,’ he says.
Happily, he still believes that a lot of what occurs on social media is really just background noise – a distraction – and that key opinion formers in the national media are still the most significant commentators. In another of Britain’s biggest companies, Centrica, which owns British Gas, change is afoot.
Having split the communications teams about five years ago, new chief executive Iain Conn is bringing everything back to the centre. British Gas will retain its own identity but work ever more closely with the group function, under one corporate affairs director.
Sophie Fitton, interim group director of strategic communications, says that the rise of social media has had the greatest impact on the way Centrica thinks about communications with its stakeholders, including its 16 million UK customers. The team uses sophisticated tracking tools to follow issues and sentiment live and has learning from its own handling of past issues.
‘We have learned to delineate roles better, to integrate better with other parts of the business from the executive committee to individual business units. We have improved our monitoring and reporting of an issue and we have a disclosure committee who sign off on all external statements and messages, which are always agreed with the chief executive and executive committee.’
Approaching this year’s General Election, the energy sector found itself under constant scrutiny, following Ed Miliband’s commitment to freeze energy prices if he were elected. The result was that Centrica’s communications team became 80 per cent reactive.
Post-election, the energy group feels confident about beginning proactive work again. Relationships with key journalists remain important in pursuing this aim. While communicators seem convinced that mainstream media outlets – broadcast and print – are still the most significant opinion formers, things could change rapidly.
Ten years ago, Twitter had not been invented. By 2025 who knows what will be consumers’ main source of news? Dominic Redfearn, recently promoted to communications director at drinks giant Diageo, is thinking about the challenge of getting a reasonable ‘share of voice’. With so many competing vehicles for content – from traditional media, to social media, to native advertising – he wants his communications team to begin thinking more holistically, across the whole business.
Redfearn trained as a journalist and is still ‘passionate’ about forward-planning and storytelling, but he has spent the last year or so working on developing a branding and reputation strategy for the global drinks business and he wants to bring some of the best marketing techniques he has seen into the public relations team’s work.
News media may still be the gatekeepers to public opinion, for now, but that is changing, very quickly in areas like fashion. Companies like Diageo, increasingly, will try to reach their audience directly, without the intermediation of journalists. They hope this will give them more control over a vicious news cycle that can be both relentless and fickle.
With the branding, creative and advertising muscle they already have, becoming content publishers in their own right is just a small step. Given the relentless and unpredictable nature of 24 hour news, it must look like a safer one to many chief executives.