Public relations vs journalism: who holds the power?

A grey boardroom in the HQ of City AM, London’s first free daily business and finance newspaper. Windows overlook a building site on one side (a crane can be glimpsed to the left) and some office blocks on the other. To the left is a dark wooden table, empty apart from a coffee cup belonging to the photographer, who is busy setting up the lights and rearranging the black leather sofa and two armchairs to the right. A babble of noise can be heard in the background – journalists calling out to each other and phones ringing intermittently.

Zaiba Malik enters the room. She is an award-winning former news journalist (BBC, Channel 4, Newsnight, Panorama) who moved into public relations two years ago. Dressed elegantly in a long navy dress and scarlet high heels, she warmly greets the photographer, and jokingly asks if she can be made to look like a model, before sitting down cross-legged in one of the armchairs.

A few moments later 29-year-old Christian May enters, dressed in a sharp blue suit. A former Westminster PR man and the Institute of Directors’ head of campaigns and communications, he was appointed City AM’s editor shortly after the last general election. He confidently introduces himself to Malik, before taking a seat beside her. His eyes are tired behind his glasses and he takes a puff of his electronic cigarette, before tucking it into his inside pocket. The vapours linger in the air.

“You become quite cynical being a journalist. I made the decision to move out around three years ago,” recalls Malik, leaning forward in the chair. “There is a career trajectory for a journalist and I just thought ‘What am I going to do now?’ I didn’t see it as moving to the dark side.”

May nods in agreement. “The old-fashioned idea that a journalist sells out and goes to the other side is a nonsense. Although it’s rare to go from communications into journalism, and perhaps even rarer to edit a newspaper when you’ve not done that before, it’s less of a jump to the other side – it’s more of a pivot.

“Doing [PR] at its best, is journalistic, it has to be,” he adds, recalling how his time in Westminster was like working in a newsroom. “I have never really seen the sort of black-and-white distinction between journalism and communications, and it is very hard for one to exist without the other.”

The photographer asks Malik to shuffle a little forward in her chair. “I know lots of journalists who moved into PR and hated it.” But, she says, the ones who do can offer a “fairly grown-up attitude” to public relations because they tend to have a robust view of the world.

What about the unusual move from PR to journalism? Trying to think more than a day ahead has been a huge challenge, admits May. “It’s absolutely relentless. On Tuesday no one is going to pat you on the back for Monday’s paper because you have to talk about Wednesday.”

He remembers his previous role, where campaigns and objectives were run and met over some months. “It’s quite a slow path of influence – you’re talking to people and trying to move the right story up or build momentum on an issue, but it’s drawn out over time, whereas, here it’s just like this.” He snaps his fingers repeatedly.

Malik asks May whether his job is not more about strategic vision: “Obviously your role as editor is, partly, to delegate the day-to-day duties to your team?”

“Yes… but it’s quite easy to get drawn into the daily routine.”

“I think that’s the difficulty [for you] going in, not even as political editor of City AM, you’ve gone into the editor role.”

The advice of one of his predecessors was to read everything. “Post-11 o’clock at night I will be in my office with A3 sheets and a pencil looking for commas or apostrophes that shouldn’t be there, or thinking that story isn’t fresh any more. It’s very hands on.”

Malik nods her head. “It is really tiring working in a newsroom year in, year out. You are trying to persuade people to do interviews with you, who don’t necessarily want to do them. Your powers of persuasion have to be very, very strong. What I like now [about working in PR] is the thinking time. It’s really important. It’s not a luxury.”

May tells Malik how he was asked if coming from a communications background means he now has more sympathy for public relations professionals.

“You can’t spin a spinner. I understand entirely their purpose and objectives, and I remember what it was like trying to hammer away to get introductions or a meeting – and therefore I reply to every email even if it’s just a simple ‘no thanks’ because I know the difference that makes.”

But where does the power lie? “With the consumer,” says Malik. “Never underestimate the audience. My advice to people in PR is not to be too worried about a negative piece in the press. Christian, do you get the sense that in the world of finance and business, companies still worry about negative coverage?”

“If you look at what happened at TalkTalk…and I appreciate we’re talking about data loss there and the death of two children with Thomas Cook, but Dido Harding [TalkTalk’s CEO] did a brilliant job responding to that story. She went for full disclosure. Contrast that with the Thomas Cook approach: taking the advice of lawyers and saying, ‘I’m not going to answer that’. It just doesn’t cut it any more.”

“That open attitude doesn’t work for everyone,” replies Malik. “If you’re quite staid and not very personable then it’s not going to work in your favour… When something terrible happens, nobody has all the answers and you just have to come out and say, ‘We are genuinely doing what we can’.

May nods. “Even just a few years ago the role of PRs was to keep people out the press. It’s harder and harder to justify a communications strategy, which is purely defensive. If you have a good and open relationship with the media in good times, it’s going to serve you better.”

“I think audiences want there to be openness, more than a degree of transparency,” says Malik.

May leans back in his chair. “I also find that people are pretty straight and they realise that if they fuck up they are going to get hauled through the coals by the newspapers. Nobody can expect to go through life, personally or professionally, without hitting some rough patches.”

Malik turns the conversation to innovation:“I wonder where the industry is going? I think there is some innovation to be done around print.”

“It’s a brave new world,” says May. “I think a lot of newspapers can see the time on the horizon when they are no longer printing on paper. The way we consume content will change quite dramatically, but I don’t buy the kind of stampede idea that we’re all racing towards constant social media, streamed media, digital content on its own.”

He points out that there are now more newspapers being bought and read in London than there were in 2005 and 2010. “That’s not just because of the population increase, that’s because of the solidity that comes with buying a newspaper.” He admits it would be “game over” if City AM ever stopped printing on paper and just became another website.

“The PR world might say digital, online, social media is the way to go, I’m not necessarily sure that’s the case to be honest,” adds Malik, who believes that with “citizen journalism” on the rise, the formal training of journalists is more crucial than ever. “If we lose that as a profession we are going to lose a lot in this country. I generally worry about where this is all heading.”

“I couldn’t agree more. I certainly didn’t have this [City AM editor role] in mind, but I am grateful for the year I spent doing media law that’s for sure.”

Malik believes the future of the industry depends on the direction national newspapers go commercially. “It’s all very easy to say that people have to pay to get their information, but actually The Sun shows it hasn’t worked.” (It recently took down its website pay wall).

The Guardian has done a really good job,” replies May. “People pay to become a member, which strikes me as a fairly extraordinary, but it generates about £45m a year for them.”

The BBC charter renewal in 2016, says Malik, will be a crucial moment for the UK media industry. “I think political interference is really dangerous for the BBC… It’s a highly political organisation but it’s fantastic and does what it does to a world-class level.”

All this said, she would not return to journalism, despite having offers from various organisations including the Beeb. “I have a new career and I’m enjoying it – crisis issues, crisis management, that’s what I enjoy now.”

May hesitates when asked the same question, and Malik laughs, waiting on tenterhooks for his answer.

“I don’t know actually… I didn’t know I was going to do this job six months ago. At the moment I think this is where I should be.”


This article by Hannah Baker was originally published in Influence magazine, Q1 2016.

Comments
  1. Really insightful article.
    Although Malik’s postive appraisal of Dido Hardings handling of the recent TalkTalk crisis, in my opinion, is misguided. Harding excerbated the situation by having no conclusive information at her disposal when broadcasting to the media. A Full disclosure approach when the severity and impact of an incident are still to be established will damage your reputation with customers and credibility with the media.

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