Saturday, July 16, 2011

Press relations as a PR practice - a diversity trap for practitioners

This week-end will be the first without the News of the World at our newsagents.

It marks another occasion when the number of editorial pages that could be influenced by the media relations sector of PR shrinks.

This post explores print media as an arena for future public relations practice.

The prospects do not look good.

The reality seems to be that there is a declining appetite for the kind of media to which we are accustomed.

This has consequences for both existing practitioners and the likes of Amanda Andrews of the Telegraph Media Group (since 2008) who announced this week that she is about to jump ship to Freud Communications in the role of head of media, focusing on technology, media and telecoms clients.

There already seems to be some reluctance to recruit from the media. A number of senior ex-News of the World journalists have enquired about PR jobs, reported PR Week. But recruitment consultants have warned that the paper's 'toxic' reputation could harm their chances of making the transition.

In a word, will there be any media for these journalists to talk to?

Yesterday (14 July 2011), Fraser Nelson the editor of The Spectator (and ex-political columnist for the News of the World) wrote about how British newspapers are haemorrhaging readers and influence. He said that on Sunday "we will see just how much this process has accelerated." Graphically, he showed that average circulation of daily newspapers is now lower than the worst days of the 1940's Blitz and for Sunday titles, we have to go back to the 1930's depression to find comparably low circulation.

Notably, the trends show steady decline from the 1960's and very rapid decline over the last decade.

In the same week Mark Sweney of the Guardian reported that "...the move to close the NoW was taken on political grounds in a bid to contain the phone-hacking scandal, it is nevertheless a hammer blow – potential relaunch notwithstanding – to a sector where publishers are trying to wrestle with high costs against a backdrop of declining revenues."

He quotes Adam Smith, director at WPP's media buying network Group M: "It is like taking Channel 4 off-air on Sundays, you are suddenly taking out 20%-plus of the market, it is really substantial with no other home [for advertisers] to really go to."

Smith makes the point that: "Taking the NoW's total 7 million readership out of the equation is massive, as there really is no substitute and the market is already not in great shape generally."

Rob Lynam, head of press and media agency MEC, is reported saying: "The Sunday model is busted," adding: "The cost base on Sunday titles is significantly higher than running a daily and publishers are looking to reduce overheads. That is why News International is moving to a seven-day model, that is why Guardian Media Group made changes to the Observer and so on."

In the same article we discover that in May 2007 the total circulation of Sunday newspapers was 12.5m; by May this year it had fallen 22% to 9.7m, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Advertisers have also walked away, with display advertising revenue down by more than 25% over the same period, from £406m to £303m. By comparison the daily national newspaper market has seen a slight increase over the past four years – although it is a very mixed picture with the only major winners the Sun, Metro and Daily Star.

If the model for newspapers is bad, spare a thought for the celebrity titles.

The Mail Online reports that circulation figures for Hello! and OK! make sorry reading.

During the second half of last year the average net circulation for Hello! was 527,000 per issue and that for OK! 487,000 from previous levels as high as 800,000 and 600,000 respectively.

Dominic Ponsford reporting in Press Gazette earlier this year showed that second half of 2010 UK market for print consumer magazines was still in decline overall. Overall, the UK's top 100 purchased magazine titles had an average per-issue total circulation of 28,844,482 - which was a 4.1 per cent decline year on year. A continuing trend.

Is this just an issue for consumer magazines? It seems not.

A Mashable report seems to show that the magazine format has its own problems among consumers. While digital downloads may be down, compared to the print equivalent they “roughly correlate their performance on the newsstand.” Based on the numbers, the decline may not be a lack of interest in the iPad as a digital print platform but rather a general disinterest in magazines.

In the B2B sector life is not very different.

Recently, business publisher Centaur Media announced it was merging its business publishing group – which includes The Lawyer and Money Marketing and it confirmed disposal of titles like The Recruiter, The Logistics Manager and Process Engineering. In November 2009 Haymarket announced the closure of the print edition of Media Week with the axing of 18 out of 58 editorial jobs across the media group as monthly title Revolution went quarterly and the websites Marketing Direct and Promotions and Incentives were merged into Brand Republic. It is putting its network of media titles behind online paywalls from July including Brand Republic, PR Week, Marketing, Campaign and Media Week. We also heard that United Business Media has sold its licensed trade titles to rival William Reed. In addition, Accountancy Age and Computer Weekly both abandoning the weekly news magazine format after more than 40 years and going online only.

Ben Dowell at the Guardian reports that there were 4,733 UK B2B titles being published in October 2010, compared to 5,108 five years earlier.

This decline in support of the media from marketing budgets is part of a significant trend according to PR Week. It reported the the second quarter IPA/BDO Bellwether Report showing marketing budgets were to reduce spend by 4.2% and a decline in PR budgets as well.

This is reflected in a number of other reports. Wark reports on a study suggesting: "The year has proved harder going, particularly in print, and there is a similar narrative coming out of the other big European economies."

So we see the long term decline in print and this must have an effect at some time on the media relations sector of the PR industry.

Meantime, television is doing very well and radio listeners, who were found to be (PDF)  happier than TV watchers and Internet users, reached its highest audience level ever in Q1, 2011 and the internet goes from strength to strength.

There are, no doubt, a lot of people who would argue that print media is only going through a trough and it will bounce back. However, this has the smack of whistling in the dark. The trends are long term and few in publishing seem to have any mould breaking ideas.

Of course, no one should make assumptions about the UK media without reference to Michael Bromley, Visiting Professor in Journalism at City University London, UK Media Landscape study. An enthusiast for the press he may be, but has made the point about the future of newspapers and magazines very well.

Against this backdrop one might expect the PR industry to be on its knees.

But we hear from PR Week that PR is doing well. The International Communications Consultancy Organisation (ICCO) reported that the UK PR industry sector witnessed a 13% increase in overall fee revenue, a figure similarly reflected by PR Week's Top 150 PR Consultancies 2011 report, which showed the average growth for a PR agency in 2010 was 9.24 per cent.

Perhaps we find some of the answers in the 2011 PR Census, a joint PR Week and PRCA research project, published this week.

It is a thorough study of the British PR industry and shows UK PR industry contributes £7.5bn to the economy and employs some 61,600 people.

PR could be compared to the UK space sector which is also worth around £7.5 billion to the economy. Space directly employs almost 25,000 people - so there is a considerable - a factor of 2.5 - productivity gap.

At last we begin to see what is happening to the PR industry. It is really dying.

What I read in the statistics is that there are far too many people doing media relations in the shrinking press relations sector which is depressing incomes and opportunities.

85% of practitioners include 'General Media Relations' as part or all of their work (84% are also involved in Media relations strategy planning).

Perhaps it is not surprising that with the media in such dire straights that the part of the PR sector involved in media relations (at least 77% have a direct role) has such a poor productivity performance compared to more advanced industries. Working on average 46.5 hours per week, PR people are doing everything they can to sustain a form of practice that is on the way out.

The numbers offer us an even worse view. 70% of people employed in the PR sector are aged between 25 and 44. This is in the prime of their career, the springboard for their future and it looks bleak.

Indeed the profile looks like white, middle class, middle aged women fighting for a falling slice of shrinking media pages available for editorial content and paid very little for long hours in a dying sector.

We are fooled by the growth in the industry as it bounces back from the recession in 2008 and we see higher turnover based on sweated labour offering misleading and what can only be temporary margins.

In an industry that prides itself on significance to corporate governance, it is evident that this is not a very profitable career choice. Only 30% of the people employed in PR earn £50,000 or more or the going rate for the mass of qualified Financial Accountants. For the average PR CEO/director in a salary of £83,000 is good which compares to the 40%of financial directors in the FT 250 who earn between £300,000 and £499,000 per year.

Media relations would seem to be holding the PR industry back, depressing salaries and creating a diversity trap for practitioners.



  1. This is an interesting analysis of the productivity gap in PR - thank you. I have been mystified by the continued glowing reports from the PR sector that seem to be completely at odds with what I have witnessed at the coalface and through colleagues' personal experiences. The old-fashioned PR model with its vertiginous hierarchies, large amounts of bureaucracy, supported by large,predictable retainers is dying a slow death. The business and media worlds that gave life to this model in the first place have moved on significantly and if the agencies want to survive, they need to seriously re-evaluate their operational and commercial models, not only their service lines.

  2. David - as ever, you present an interesting perspective. Your comparison of number of people in PR against the financial value of the industry; alongside hours worked and salary earned provides some pause for thought.

    All areas of working in PR tend to rely on putting in hours rather than looking at productivity. I wonder how much of the dominant media relations activity is actually effective.

    Also, let's add in the fact that entry to PR is increasingly via a graduate qualification. The hourly pay for an agency account exec based on the census data would appear to be around £10 per hour. And, we're told the agency world is pre-dominantly London based. Hard to justify investment in a career in PR to churn out press releases for these returns...