How can PR regain the personal touch?

When did PRs and journalists stop talking to each other? As in, really talking?

‘They never pick up the phone anymore’

‘We only correspond via email’

‘They just don’t seem to have the time to talk these days’

It sounds like a relationship breaking up, and in some ways, it is. Media professionals with a several decades’ experience on their CVs such as Sir Nicholas Lloyd, former Fleet Street editor and founder of international strategic advisory consultancy BLJ London, remember a time when things were done differently.

‘Regular, frequent communication was key,’ recalls Sir Nicholas. ‘It wasn’t just about seeking specific information or pitching a particular story. It was about keeping the lines of communication open so that you had a proper, working relationship where over time you would know who to trust, who was well-informed and who would lead you in completely the wrong direction.’

The daily or weekly ring-around of useful contacts would often consist of informal conversations and exchange of gossip, rather than to pitch or enquire about a particular story. During these chats, useful nuggets of information would be traded, and gradually, a story idea might emerge, a pattern forming, lines of enquiry firming up into a proper feature.

Over time, the phone conversation might turn into a coffee, a lunch or an afternoon drink or two. One-to-one meetings between PRs and journalists would turn into group discussions, as either side might bring along a colleague to be introduced so they could start developing their own contacts.

Every so often one party, the media outlet or the PR company, would host a lunch or drinks in a local pub, gather their team and head out to spend an evening drinking and bonding. There would be a lot of drinking – hey, it was the 90s and 00s we’re talking about here – but the pocketful of business cards the next day could be a great source of news and industry rumours for both sides. When you were on deadline, you would know exactly who to call for a response and who to trust to get you closer to the facts – and it was up to you what you did with that information.

These days, it is the norm rather than the exception for journalists and PRs to conduct relationships entirely remotely. At the most basic level, an email is sent pitching a story, a client, an event. The journalist might respond, they might not. If it’s something they’re interested in, there might be a phone call to discuss, but more often than not, it’s all done by email. A story appears in a publication, it’s all done. The next lot of email pitches go out.

How soulless is that? And could Covid be to blame? After two years where most business relationships had to be conducted at a distance, it seems that we are still operating under those conditions.

Should we accept this as a natural progression in two industries which, like many others post-Covid, have gone over to more remote ways of working, or should both sides work hard to regain the personal touch?

It’s not just Covid to blame of course, although the move to working-from-home certainly didn’t help. The days of long, gossipy lunches disappeared well before we all worked from our home offices or kitchen tables, mainly because no-one had the time for a long lunch anymore. Fewer staff to meet the same deadlines meant you couldn’t disappear for a couple of hours without the guarantee of a story at the end of it – or not even that. Lunch at Christophers or J Sheekys turned into Pret sandwiches ‘al desko’. And many people will WFH, free drinks in the City after work just aren’t as appealing if you have to commute from home to get there.

But given that many in the media are working, at least part of the time, back in the office, what’s the excuse for the lack of face-to-face or phone-to-phone chatter? Companies haven’t helped themselves by cutting back on press offices or making contact details harder to find than the lost city of Atlantis. Journalists on a deadline want to be able to pick up the phone and talk directly to someone, not email a generic pressoffice@ or worse, info@ email address which will never be answered.

Some people don’t want to talk on the phone at all, which could be an age thing. Reluctance over using a phone to actually call someone for a conversation – the horror! – is creeping through the generations, so younger professionals on both sides are more likely to do everything via email. There’s a cover-your-back aspect here too – if it’s all written down then there can be no dispute about what was asked or said later on – but it’s short-changing the whole process. Without the real-time back-and-forth of a proper conversation, how can you jump in with questions as they arise during the chat? How can you gain more information by talking around a topic, with all the tangents and dead-ends that entails, if questions are set out in stone at the start of an investigation?

Many of us have witnessed the transformation from everyone on their phones to contacts all day, to tapping away silently at a keyboard. It’s less challenging and less productive, and ultimately less illuminating.

So what can we do to reverse this situation? We need to go back in time to, not just before Covid, but to the days when people from all sides actually met. PR companies and publications alike need to host networking events where people actually talk to each other in real life. It’s impossible to recreate that experience on Zoom.

‘At BLJ London we never stop talking to people, we never stop meeting people and we work tirelessly at keeping the lines of communication open,’ says Sir Nicholas. ‘We pride ourselves on having contacts across business, media, communications, and politics which go back decades, but also with insisting that our newest members of staff make their own contacts in the ‘old-fashioned’ way – by actually getting out there and meeting people.’

Remember that old BT advert – ‘It’s Good to Talk’? We need to start talking again.

Maybe it’s all a bit like internet dating. Going online might seem incredibly efficient, but over time, you realise that there’s just no substitute for meeting In Real Life.