Is the UK practice more focussed on media relations while the USA practice is increasingly straying away from media relations? Your opinion?

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.




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6 Replies to “Is the UK practice more focussed on media relations while the USA practice is increasingly straying away from media relations? Your opinion?

  1. Toni, thank you for writing, ” that this might stimulate you to comment more frequently.”

    Yesterday one of your readers wrote directly to me, bawling me out for being rude in my posting. Apparently it’s rude to name the names of people at IABC when I think they’ve missed opportunities. So there you go. There is a range of opinions in this world. I should note that Charles Pizzo, mentioned in my note above, devloted his year as chair to fixing up a financial and management mess that if I write more about may result in me getting sued.

    About PR and theatre. A story of mine was published in O’Dwyer’s PR Daily today or yesterday (depending on he time zone) about a stunt I came across while walking to meet my partner at the train station the other day. Two actors have a fake parking meter broken on the ground under the front wheel of a car, looking as if the car was badly parked, part way up on the sidewalk. The ideas was passersby would stop and the actors would tell them funny stories about safety.

    I found the stunt so good I wrote about it, and Jack published it. SMAK, Vancouver and Toronto, was the agency (pr? advertising? who knows?) that arranged for the car and actor and parking meter. Client was the City of Toronto. Quentin Evans at SMAK, Toronto is a sharp young guy, and will be delighted when he sees his name, and his agency’s name, and especially his client’s name, here.

    I spent most of the day writing a pr program for an association, and the most important part of “social media” in today’s planning was that while hardly anyone reads blogs, some of the few are reporters, so words might actually spread to large numbers of readers, viewers, listeners.

    On the day I was walking to the station to meet my partner,she was on her way into town to have lunch with a reporter from The Toronto Star, Canada’s largest circulation daily, just on general principles. No story to push, just contacts to be retained and ideas, from both sides, to toss around.

    As for M. Valin… yes, I did forget about the Global Alliance, and his message above prompted me to go the the Global Alliance web site. You could get lost in there for days, reading intersting content, country by country.

    And I’m sorry I missed the CPRS conference. Gordon McIvor, a long time Canadian PR man who is not an offical CPRS spokesperson wrote an excellent op-ed piece in The National Post about the high quality of the people attending that conference. I’m sure that Jean’s contribution was a big part of what made Gordon so pleased with the conference. I’ll be b ack at the Global Alliance web site tomorrow to see if I can find a report on it.

    CPRS itself did not bother doing any media relations about the conference, as far as I can tell. And I’ve looked.

    Finally, in regard to what the general public thinks PR people do. Lots think PR people are beautiful women with headsets and clipboards, organizing parties for equally beautiful women,and a variety of men, some of whom are just as beautiful and some who are tattooed and grungy.


  2. I was very stimulated by these comments and believe it might be worthwhile to add a few bits here and there in order to eventually stimulate a debate with commenters as well as welcome others to the discussion.

    Catherine Arrow is right in saying that mainstream media are a one-way tool. But certainly media relations are not. If there is one truly two-way relationship tool this is, for us, relationships with journalists. As much as this may seem obvious, it is clearly not so! I have yet to find an under thirty five year old practitioner who takes the time to unlock his/her chain from the computer desk and wander out in the real city to go and visit journalists with whom they have spam type virtual relationship ten times a day, to meet them in person, understand their working environment and really listen to them, understand them, interpret their expectations… rather than just considering them, in the best of circumstances (when we need them) as just another mail box, or -in the worst of circumstances (when they need us..)- as a true pain in the ass. The same can be said for many senior professionals who would bend backwards ten times to share a minute with a Ceo, but wouldn’t give a hoot to sit down and listen with a more than 60 second span of attention to a journalist, unless obliged by circumstances. When I was professionally growing up (in the early sixties) the legendary head of pr for 3M Company, John Verstraete insisted that in each monthly report I submitted, when I was head of pr for that company in Italy, I indicate how many and which journalists I had visited in their working environment. I am not aware of any director of communication or head of agency who requires this today. And mobile phones or the Internet cannot be used as an excuse for not doing this. Anyone can appreciate how direct and personal face to face relationships are much more important today than yesterday, just because of cell phones and the Internet….
    Also Catherine, although I agree that media and direct relationships are compatible and automous tools, there is no doubt today that much more than 50% of our professional time is devoted to mainstream media as Brian Kilgore implies in his comment.

    By the way Brian, thanks for the tip on the technical lapse of the blog and I hope we have solved the issue now and that this might stimulate you to comment more frequently. Of course there are many differences in practice country by country and continent by continent and this is the basic substance of the course I am now attempting to teach in NY about which I recently posted here. Of course I am not an expert in any way, but I have taken quite a lot of time and effort to read throught the many and increasing sources which have fortunately spring up in recent years about the public relations profession in various countries and regions. To step aside from mainstream media, I ahve learned from my good Southern Africa and Indian colleagues that theatrical representations and other so called folk or indigenous media are often used in those countries, particulraly for internal anc public service ommunication issues. However I know of various instances in which theatrical representations are now used also in the UK and in Italy with great success. So…who influences whom?
    But, as your compatriot and my good friend Jean Valin indicates, there are also generic principles which maintain and actually reinforce their validity because of such diversity. You also imply that there never have been as many press releases as today and you are right. But this is no contradiction with the disintermediation trend I was suggesting. To the contrary…while more sophisticated and thoughtful organisations think twice before undertaking a media relations activity, there are thousands of new entries who want a ‘share of the media pie’ and their ‘moment of glory’ and this is why rather than sizes of budgets increasing dramatically it is the number of budgets which are growing….

    Finally, I am intrigued by David Phillips situational intepretation of the concpet of dominant coalition. If I interpret him correctly, he implies that according to the issue or the circumstances an organization’s dominant coalition is different. As much as this may seem obvious to some, I can ensure you that in most cases we use the term dominant coalition as a more sophisticated term meaning executive board….How in the hell are we supposed to listen to, understand and interpret an organizations stakeholder expectations if we are not even capable of understanding that the composition of the dominant coalition to whom we should relate such interpretation is always different?????
    One other dubious term many of use is stakeholder to indicate generic publics.
    If one is a stakeholder, then he/she holds a stake. Now if one holds a stake he/she is active when is aware of this stake and intends to leverage it at least by a relationship or potential if, when he/she becomes aware of having that stake would intend to leverage it. The others are not stakeholders, they might be influential publics, end users, whatever. You can imagine the implications of this:
    °you do not need persuasive communication tools to dialogue (pull) with an active stakeholder;
    °you need to inform (mild push) potential stakeholders so that they migrate to the first group;
    °you need to draw the attention of influential publics (persuasive push) and engage them in a rewarding (for them) relationship
    and finally
    °you need to push, push, push (advertising, promotion and marketing pr or, as many say, integrated marketing communication) to communicate-to end users….
    opinions on this?

  3. Toni and Brian (a.k.a BAK)

    My Canadian friend is forgetting about the leaders of the Global Alliance- Toni included- who travelled the world and have considerable experience themselves. The answer is not a simple one, but recently I chaired a panel session at the CPRS conference where we lined up several speakers from different continents: Latin America, Europe, Africa and North America to discuss the broader question of “different VS same”. On the broader question, it seems clear that we are all operating from a similar conceptual framework although there are differences in some countries. This is based on the Gruning work which eesentially states that the profession is a strategic managerial function; focused on relationships; delivers a program that helps shape the organisation; is or aspires to be professional; and is the ethical conscience of an organisation. That represents the generic principles. the specific applications- where we are different are:culture, socio-political structures, freedom of media and speech; level of development.
    On the narrower question of media relations, it is also clear that due to radically different environments in various parts of the world, there is a different way to conduct media realtions and moreover, a greater or lesser degree of reliance on press agentry. It is a fact that press agentry is still the dominant model of practice -all things being equal- but there is a lot of emphasis on social media in all parts of the world and this has the potential to become an equalizer of sorts for the profession.
    Anyway, my two cents for today.

  4. Toni, UK newspapers have had an unbroken run for 300 years. They are engrained as part of The Establishment (The Forth Estate). In the UK press relations attend on the social, economic and political quadrille.

    The first public relations practitioners, as we would recognise them today, were fashionable at the time of American Independence. They were good at media relations, lobbying, political campaigning and some were even gifted in public presentation.

    This goes back a long way and is well established in the 18th Century. Here is a report of a PR person plying her trade in 1784: ‘Parliamt of England had been dissolved on the new Elections Mr Pitts Party were very successful and that Mr Fox was in danger of losing his Election for Westminster. That a new political Phenomenon had appear’d. The Dutches of Devonshire had personally appear’d on the Hustings or Stage and solicited Votes for Fox’. In an era when newspapers were consumed with scandal and as politically biased as can be, she sought to influence both reporting and editorial with considerable success. Here parties included editors and columnists and journalists who she entertained lavishly alongside here very aristocratic friends in the ton.

    The biography of Georgiana, Dutchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman describes PR as it has been in the UK for 300 years – not a jot changed.

    When the church, nobility and commons become the fourth estate in social media and as wholesale distribution of comment, commentary and knowledge undermines the nature of the forth estate, where can the public relations practitioner go?

    Catherine is right.

    We are finding out now that the dominant coalition whom Georgiana knew so well is, today, changed. It morphs with the moment.

    Prime Minister Blair is at one moment in charge of government and in another, sidelined.
    Even in corporate life power can reside well beyond the boardroom. For example the reputation of HP’s directors should have brought about a collapse in share price aeons ago. Power, then, left these people and resides elsewhere in the corporation; perhaps with the social relationships. These are different times. Gone is the wealth of the English ton based on social, political and landed estates.

    The very assets we claim support our economies are at best metaphors. If MySpace is worth $600 million, which part belongs on the balance sheet? The computer programme or the 40,000,000 (some claim 100,000,000) people who use it.

    If the power in government, corporate life and landed estates is ever changing, where then is power and influence?

    Is the power then in the hands of the person who has the social media estates?

    Has Rupert Murdoch relinquished the power he wielded with ownership of The Times (which Geogiana knew) and acquired a new Fourth Estate and powerbase as owner of MySpace.

    This, then will decide the nature of PR in the UK. If it does now embrace direct relationships as well as the press relations it will wield such little power that it will die. The legacy of Georgiana, Dutchess of Devonshire will be gone.

  5. First, the comment box instructions on the blog are, at least on my computer, unreadable. White on pale blue does not work, and I’m just guessing what needs to go into each box in order to permit posting. We’ll see what happens when I click on Submit Comments.

    That out of the way…

    You are right to state your thoughts are generalities, there are exceptions, etc., etc.

    Hardly anyone is qualified to comment in depth, because most of us don’t travel the world; it’s one fo the failings of many in North America and one of the strengths of the Europeans — whether or not the UK is considered Europe. Europeans seem to get around more.

    And, although I’m far away, I think there’s huge difference between business attitudes in, say, Spain and Denmark.

    But, Toni, since you’re over there, can you tell me if I’m right? Hungary and France?

    The world experts on comparing PR and/or communications (depending on your semantics) are Charles Pizzo, David Kistle, some people I’ve forgotten the names of, Warren Bickford and Glenda Holmes. All IABC chairs. They’ve travelled all over the world in the past few years, talking to hundreds of communicators and speaking to thousands, and yet none of them have ever, as far as I’ve been able to find — Lord knows I’ve looked — ever stood up in front of a major audience and spoken about your original question. “How does PR differ, all over the world?” And then reprinted the presentation on the IABC web site, and, even tried minor league media relations, let alone anything half-way professional, like an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal or The (real) Times, in England.

    I write for Jack O’Dwyer, and one of my articles, on how well PR is understood in Canada, was the 11th most visited story in August; not bad since it was not posted until the 25th of the month.

    Jack’s readers are curious about PR and it’s reputation.

    Other thoughts on your original question:
    — ask editors if PR has cut down on media reelations. I bet they get as many releases as in the past, except more are badly written.
    — read the media with a marker in your hand, and put a check mark on every story, every picture, where the hand of the PR pro is evident. I suggest 3 out of 4, at least, when you count political spinners as PR people. Almost every story in entertainment sections. Almost every story in sports sections,. Almost every story in business pages. Even the fire story has a fire department PR pro involved more often than not, handling media relations.

    — visit magazine stands, and see the relatively new magazines that are nothing but handout photos and press releases. Cargo comes to mind in Canada. IS “Stuff” one of these? And then note the other magazine stories where, at least, an editor gets involved with the content instead of just reprinting the releases, and the ideads and much of the content come from PR pros.

    One of my partners and I are writing a PR program this week for a national association. We certainly are going to have lots of media relations activities in it, but we also notice the news hole — at least in Canada and the USA, where we watch the media closely — is getting smaller. CNN is guaranteed to spend hours a day showing pictures of people standing out in the wind.

    As I type, CNN has a Bob Woodward story on. The same story, perhaps with different words, will be on twenty times today, I bet. Over here, Iraq and Afghan pictures, over and over and over. No room for other news, whether PR people are involved or not.

    So, badly written releases on non-stories, competing for a smaller news hole on the one hand; control freaks who thumb their noses at customers, shareholders, stakeholders, taxpayers on the other hand, blocking the release of information.

    Anyway, Glenda and Warren know the differences, or should, betwen UK, European, Chinese, Australian, Canadian and US pr attitudes toward media relations, because of their world travels. Let’s hear from them.


  6. I think your final paragraphs sum it up entirely. The arguments will arise because some will feel more comfortable using one mechanism as opposed to another.
    Mainstream media is one communications channel used by practitioners and social media is another. In the past, because mainstream media has been a dominant channel, it has received a higher, more concentrated focus than others. But make no mistake, other channels have been used extensively over decades and by-passing mainstream media is nothing new – and yes, this is true even in the UK!
    There has been a tendency in the UK, US and other countries using similar practice models to measure results by the amount of ‘coverage’ received in the mainstream media, but, thank goodness, that too is changing. Mainstream media relations is only one tool in the box: to champion it above all others is a bit like saying that a carpenter only ever uses a hammer, should only use a hammer and defining carpentry as ‘those who use hammers’, rather than seeing the ‘whole’ – craftspeople who employ a variety of tools to create useful and decorative items for a purpose.
    Our role as practitioners is to build relationships. To do this effectively we must use a variety of approaches in order to create dialogue between communities – so they can either meet a commercial need or improve social or environmental conditions for the people involved.
    Mainstream media is primarily a ‘one-way’ tool that distorts content and adds self-generated opinion as part of its business of raising its own revenue (please let us not forget that mainstream media are commercial entities which aim to make profits).
    Social media creates an opportunity for unfiltered dialogue, but is only useful when the participants are actually sharing knowledge and listening to each other, rather than using the mechanism to further their own ends – be that profile pyramiding or community manipulation.
    Each tool has an upside and a downside, each is appropriate in particular circumstances and the art – as ever – is knowing which tool, or set of tools, will be the most effective in achieving the required objectives. The science is knowing when and how to apply them.
    So, hurrah for the journalists, hurrah for the Bebos, Friendsters, bloggers and podcasters, but a great big cheer for the practitioners sensible enough to know how to balance and judge the appropriate use of them all.

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