Strained Relations: how the PR community lets down HK businesses
The rise of social media allowed PR people to exact their revenge upon rude, nosy, fact-checking journalists - but at what price?
There was once a cartoon in a London newspaper that I particularly admired. It was neatly captioned: Life Before Estate Agents and showed two figures talking. The first said: “Hello, would you like to buy my house?” “Yes” said the second.
Today, you could run much the same cartoon, but refocus it on Hong Kong’s burgeoning PR industry.
Life Before Hong Kong Public Relation Consultancies:
Journalist: Hello, can I interview you for a profile piece?
It really should be that simple. But it isn’t. It really isn’t. How else could a profile piece I worked on recently have taken more than a year from inception to completion? Worse still, the instigation for the piece came from the client himself. And then he went and spoilt it. By doing something stupid. Like involving his PR people.
The gentleman in question is a self-made individual. He’d built his impressive business largely through his own ingenuity, perseverance and charisma. Over the years, he’d handled a number of setbacks – bad debts, breakaways, the loss of two major contracts in the same month and a change in legislation that made one of his core activities borderline illegal, with destitution and bankruptcy suddenly a very real possibility. Yet, throughout it all, he had prevailed, handling his affairs with an aplomb and assurance that left his rivals struggling to keep up.
When it came to dealing with the press, however, he had somehow been convinced he needed the services of an intermediary – a 26-year-old intermediary with a hemline notably higher than her IQ. Somehow, her company had inveigled its way in and convinced the entrepreneur in question that he was unfit to answer press enquiries without their direct intervention. And, let’s be frank here, we’re talking off-the-cuff restaurant preferences. Not nuclear secrets.
There was a time when public relations and the media had an antagonistic, but creative dynamic. PR consultancies were obliged to “sell” stories to the media, constrained to come up with genuinely interesting angles that weren’t simply brandorsements. Clients were persuaded to participate in coverage that wasn’t assuredly saccharine, with the PRs trusting that their paymasters were adept enough to score more goals than they conceded. Think adversarial not advertorial.
For journos and PRs, it was always a grudge match. Journos capriciously belittled the efforts of their consultancy counterparts, delighting in dissing their press releases and naysaying their overtures as non-newsworthy. In simple terms, the media held all the cards. They were the gatekeepers to public perception and PRs had to prostrate themselves in the hope their supplication would merit their client a mention in a Sunday supp or two.
The digital dawn wiped away all such contrivances. The open access of social media, in particular, saw a huge shift in power. With more exposure opportunities than content, suddenly every middle ranking business type was Madonna, with PR folk vetting their pix, expecting interview questions in advance and insisting on post-match “fact-checking” censorship of any wayward quotes.
(And when it comes to fact checking, love, it’s not actually a fact that your client offers “a unique, bespoke ground-breaking hi-tech solution that has proved hugely welcome to many”. I checked.)
For PRs, it was a kind of protracted revenge, payback for all the years spent wheedling column inches from disdainful hacks – hacks who would chug their champers and purloin their petit fours, then consign their client’s coverage to the nearest recycling receptacle. It is a revenge, though, that has no gone on way too long.
The clout bestowed by social media’s open access is, at best, illusory. While PR folk – with a degree of justice – have laid claim to managing their client’s virtual reputation, the very ubiquity of the medium undermines its impact.
The digital realm is one vast continuum, embracing every viewpoint, creed and contingency. It knows no bounds and every press release, self-serving survey and peccadillo-free profile can be shovelled into its oceanic expanse without raising the level one jot. In any sense.
The abiding appeal of print media (and its online incarnation) is that it’s curated. Items of reckless disinterest are filtered out, with the net result a distillation of something of value, something that comes embossed with a seal of approval, something that says yes, this is an item of genuine appeal, handpicked from a sea of digital dross by seasoned professionals with no vested interest. People like the reassurance of other people’s approbation, it gives them a warm glow of security and someone else to cite when others demur.
It is time for a degree of rapprochement. PR consultancies need to stop being so precious about their clients and stop insisting that, unless journos are willing to be conscripted as corporate cheerleaders, they won’t get no pix nor no access. At the same time, the gentlemen of the press should, perhaps, be a little gentlemanly to their hard-pressed PR colleagues.
For the most part, a page lead in the South China Morning Post is still going to wield more clout than a freelance Twitter storm. This is perhaps why single page print ads still cost far more than a digital DPS.
To secure this, PRs need to re-engage with conventional media brands and accept that terms need to be negotiated not dictated. There is a degree of enlightened self-interest here. Eventually, clients will wake up to the fact that, for all the puffery and flattery delivered by their PR crew, nothing is flying off the shelf any faster than once it was.
One UK fmcg baron famously used to lament that he wasted half his ad spend, but didn’t know which half. For HK PR spend that particular equation is sadly far more resolvable – pretty much both halves. More added value, less virtual vanity publishing. The Hong Kong business community deserves far, far better.