I receive mixed reactions from my interlocutors when I argue that, while it is fair to consider, as a great many do, the UK model of practice in public relations more similar to the US than to the Continental European one, there however remains today one fundamental difference related to the attitude of a growing number of practitioners toward relationships with the media.I have observed in these the past few years a significant trend in the US practice to move away, avoid, bypass, disintermediate…however you wish to say it…the media. To the contrary, it seems to me that in the UK there has been in recent years an increasing focus on the media. Now, of course, this is very much a generalization and it probably reflects more a mood that anything else, but in my view, even if so, it is significant. There are various reasons which induce me to say this. Here are just a couple, and hopefully others will want to dissent, comment or suggest even more reasons for this curious ‘anomaly’. 1.The practice of an organization which communicates directly with its key publics has always been an ambition of all public relators, since ever.
Until a few years ago this was neither possible nor realistic nor even, in most cases, effective: communicating one with one was possible, communicating one with few was difficult but not impossible, but communicating one with many was prohibitive and therefore we relied either on communicating one to many (by the way of advertising) or communicating to many through few (i.e. journalists or opinion leaders who, in turn, used journalists).
At least one of the reasons why the media plays such an important role in our profession is that we have always thought (and certainly we always led our clients/employers to believe so) that our publics considered media as a more credible source of information and that seeking third party endorsement was part of the essence for the credibility of our profession..
All this, however, is no longer as true as it was before.
Even my friend Jack O’Dwyer -the staunchest and most vocal supporter of the media being the prime interlocutor for public relators, in a recent op-ed( jack 1.doc ) on this issue -in which he unabashedly attacks my highly reputed colleague Jim Lukasevski for preaching an anti-media approach in his PRSA sponsored seminars and teleconferences- concedes that the media has suffered at least some drop in the credibility of the media. Others say this loss is much more serious than Jack concedes…
Also -as Richard Edelman often says- it is possible today, more effective and often even more economic to communicate directly with selected publics through new media, allowing the public relator to avoid the uncontrollable interpretation of content, the time restrictions as well as the uncertain delivery etc… by the way of mainstream media.
One way or another, most senior US based professionals I have spoken to in recent months agree that this approach is increasing.
To support his pro-media approach Odwyer has undertaken a campaign on his website of which you may here find one interesting example (jack 2.doc) ….
In the UK, although I am sure that many professionals are thinking in the same direction as in the Usa, it seems to me that the increasing political, economic and social role of the British media, and particularly the success of its popular press, has contributed to the profession focussing on mainstream media and spreading a pervasive celebrity quest which has unfortunately infected the leadership of all forms of organizations.
I had the privilege of chairing for two consecutive years (2004-2005) the CIPR’s Jury of the Excellence Awards in Public Relations and I can ensure you that I was amazed at how much relevance entrants attributed to the media.
In some ways, this British trend mirrors what is also going on in other continental European countries, where media however is not nearly as relevant…but this may be attributed to the lower stages of development of the profession in those countries in which organizations view public relations mainly as media relations and the visibility syndrome of organizational leadership has offered psychoanalysts and health consultants a new avenue of income to sell dearly to politicians, ceo’s, trade unionists and others (public relators, included..)…
But, you might well ask, admitting that this ‘stay away from the media’ trend in the USA will inevitably expand into the UK and from there into Continental Europe and then the rest of the world…and… for the good or for the bad… will go on for some time to come, what do we actually think about this?
Are we in favour or against?
Jack O’Dwyer has voiced his ‘conservative’ opinion: as much as new technologies are important
-he implies- an organization responds for its behaviours to public opinion as it is traditionally interpreted and represented by mainstream media, and not solely to selected publics or stakeholders which may be engaged in relationships directly by the organisation, without necessarily going through media scrutiny and publicly exposing its behaviours.
He also implies that the real reason why organizations want to stay away from the media is their attempt to distance themselves from public scrutiny, preferring to ‘deal’ more privately, directly and in a controlled fashion, with their attentively selected stakeholders.
I tend to agree with Jack in the sense that not even social activists or specific aggressive publics can substitute the scrutiny role of the media and that organizations should consider journalists as key stakeholders for that reason.
On the other hand, one cannot deny that many of the contents organizations wish to pass on to their key publics are of little interest to the media…and this…. might be yet another reason for their steady decline on all markets (with the exception of the UK!).
Nor can anyone honestly deny that, at least five times out of ten, the content which travels from organizations to the public via the media is different from its original source, when not all together distorted. And after all we must be fully conscious that the media operates in a market, has its own axes to grind and often those of its shareholders and their many friends.. let’s not exaggerate the sacred role of media, please!
If new media enables organisations to communicate directly with their key publics via virtual relationship environments, pseudo events, viral and other methods, these are all added, reinvented and reinforced tools that public relators adapt and adopt to circumstances as they come up.
There doesn’t seem to me to be much scope for an ideological war between pro msm and pro new media in our profession. As long as both are fully recognised as fundamental to the development of ongoing and effective relationships between an organization and its publics.