Written by Will Swarts
If George Bernard Shaw had gone into PR, he might say that public relations work in the United States and in the United Kingdom can be seen as two professions separated by a common language. As a long-time business reporter turned media relations executive, now working in the New York office of a global communications agency, I might agree, up to a point.
The objectives – learn, develop and mold your clients’ stories, unlocking their value and demonstrating distinguishing qualities, then sharing them through persistent pitching, contributed content and skillful use of a range of media platforms – are identical. But the media canvas where this work plays out isn’t quite the same on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the US, where journalism – for at least the last half of the last century or so – rests on a self-declared foundation of objectivity and non-partisan recounting of facts, reporters and editors often take upon themselves to engage with public relations professionals with a skeptical sensibility, making the soft sell and subtle persuasion something of an art form. In the UK, connections to the right reporters and editors are equally vital – relationships are the key to communications work, after all – though it’s worth noting a few differences of style in these two media cultures.
There’s a fair amount of nurturing one’s relationships with American reporters, as visiting UK colleagues have noted in their New York office stints. The profession prides itself on being independent, and that can make it hard to demonstrate that we media relations pros are there to help. The best parts of our jobs – telling clients’ stories and facilitating access – can help even seasoned beat reporters who are often tied to their desks, trying to boost their own productivity while publications scramble to curb costs by keeping editorial staffs lean. Those chummy lunches I took at the start of my New York reporting career are mostly memories from a media culture that didn’t always move at digital speed. (Still, it’s not impossible to woo an English or American journo with the promise of a cup of coffee or a pint.)
Conversations with UK colleagues reveal a more unvarnished approach on both sides of the PR/journo equation. It’s probably a bit more straightforward and direct, say a couple of my London colleagues. As a general rule, UK reporters are less shy about saying they need content and sources and will be pretty clear in telling you if your pitch isn’t right for them.
It is, they assure me, in no way rude to get a reporter on the phone and ask, “Mate, are you gonna do the story, or not?” Working in New York, I’ve gotten – and made – plenty of promises to “look it over when I have time.” That time rarely comes. But when you’ve put good cards on the table in the form of a great client message, it’s easier for a reporter anywhere to pick up that hand.
More than ever, a common theme with content contribution is that what you submit is what readers will get. The paring back – or total elimination – of copy editors (US) and subeditors (UK) at all but the top tier publications means that improvements to articles, whitepapers and other commentary will come from the media relations representatives working for their clients.
To do that, though, we must return to the aspect of media relations that’s really at the core of all good client support in any country: good stories. Finding a way to make your client stand out, to showcase something that sets them apart from competitors and successfully grab the attention of the reporter who’ll get it out to the right audience is the goal and definition of success in our work, no matter where we apply our trade.