IN AN insightful discussion, Sir Martin Sorrell of the public relations and marketing group WPP asks Lord Browne about the issue of sexuality in business and the challenges for coming out at work.
I HAVE been genuinely amazed by the response to my PRWeek article on the need for a support network for gay PR practitioners. Apart from a Tweet by former CIPR board member Sarah Hall, there has been almost nothing on Twitter about it – people can be wary of outing themselves so publicly. But my email inbox has been overflowing with messages from people who found the message encouraging. One person even picked up the phone to discuss it.
Plans are afoot to establish a network for gay people in PR and marketing communications roles. I’ll keep you updated.
FOR MOST organisations, press conferences should be avoided. There are certain product launches or announcements where a press conference works. They involve stories in which every relevant journalist has to cover the story. Manchester United, for example, can get a journalist from each news organisation that has soccer coverage to attend. That is, alas, not the case for the majority of companies.
Most journalists find themselves tied down to their desk, and travelling across a city to come to get information that could just be written in a press release wastes their time. I once went to a press conference attended by only two journalists. This sort of attendance looks embarrassing – even if the participants are the most important journalists you want to communicate with.
Lis Lewis-Jones is one of many practitioners who has cut back on press conferences. She talks about when she first started working in PR: “I worked in house at Birmingham Airport. We regularly held press conferences and a variety of local, regional, business, trade publications and broadcast journalists would attend. I actually can’t remember the last time I organised a press conference – the media just don’t have the time or the resources to attend.”
It may be that ditching the word “conference” fixes the problem, or instead just meeting journalists one-on-one. When I reviewed Apple’s Aperture photo software for a computing magazine, the technology firm flew me out to Munich to their European HQ for a demonstration. I attended with a small group of other journalists, from various European countries.
It was not a press conference per se, and, as I understood it, other journalists were being shown the software on different days. So the fact that only half a dozen of us attended was not unexpected. The firm wanted to demo it to the press before letting us use it on our own computers so that we all understood the important features and how they worked. It was a smart strategy.
However, even when an announcement merits a press conference, it can go badly. I went to a press conference in Paris along with a Guardian journalist. He was hostile to what the company hosting the event was doing, and his questions were heard by all those present. The result was that every journalist listened to both the favourable angle the company the company wanted to project and to a very critical view, too.
OVER TEN per cent of men working in public relations are gay. Find out the challenges for the LGBT community working in PR in my latest article for PRWeek.
There may be times – especially if your organisation is controversial – that you find that a publication routinely writes negative stories about you. This can be depressing, and how you deal with it requires caution.
It is easier to do something about factually inaccurate stories than about merely hostile ones. In the UK, television stations are regulated by Ofcom (and, in the case of the BBC, by the BBC Trust). The newspapers have an Editors’ Code of Conduct and an independent regulator, Ipso. If a newspaper story is materially inaccurate, you may wish to submit a letter for publication, or request a correction. If the newspaper accepts that you may be in the right, they will readily accept these suggestions, as if you make a more complaint to Ipso, it will waste considerable time and has greater potential for embarrassment.
The best technique with hostile journalists, in the first instance, is to be as nice as you can to them – even if you do need to correct their perspective by, for example, issuing a statement on your website. Rising to the bait and denouncing them could encourage more hostile coverage at some future juncture.
Sometimes the correct response is to cut off all ties – but this has significant risks. In 2012, David Tovar, Walmart’s vice president for communications, announced that “We have made a business decision not to participate in [the online publication’s] articles going forward due to the one-sided reporting and unfair and unbalanced editorial decisions made by … reporters and editors.”
This was an effective strategy because the media coverage around the ban has acted as a loud rebuttal of the website’s criticisms. And the technique wasn’t unprecedented. In 1984, Mobil Oil, fed up with coverage in a major US paper, boycotted the publication’s journalists. The head of public affairs Herb Schmertz said: “We concluded that the situation couldn’t get worse. We did it for our own self-respect.”
But it can backfire, as the act of banning a publication will often be seen as unfair in the eyes of wider public – and as an attempt to stifle debate or hide the truth. The banned publication, if it is of note, can turn the ban into a huge negative story in and of itself.
There have been occasions when bans have turned a difficult relationship into a toxic one – and the chances of such consequences increases with the importance – in the eyes of the public – of the publication. A charm offensive is normally a better strategy, and this should always be deployed first.
The dangers of a hostile press are one reason that companies in the public eye retain PR consultants with crisis communications experience, who can be deployed at short notice. Often, when an unexpected crisis hits, companies with underfunded PR operations are unable to react quickly enough to the needs of media. And speed is important. That is why it is vital that social media is monitored, as this can provide an early warning of a crisis.
As the phrase goes: “A lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has got its boots on.” And it is why, even when a journalist is unsympathetic to your position, banning them from your press office should be a last resort.