It was 20 years ago this year, to misquote Sgt Pepper, that I reluctantly left an ailing regional newspaper to embark on a career in public relations. Friends and colleagues were surprised, some horrified, by my switch to the “dark side”. One colourfully described me as a “purveyor of bovine scatology”, a phrase which translates uneasily into a family newspaper like the Yorkshire Post, but whose gist is clear. After all, this was 1998, when Alastair Campbell was spinning all sorts of nonsense to promote New Labour and style was winning the battle over substance.
It has been an extraordinary journey. Intriguingly PR has taught me more about human nature than journalism ever did. As a journalist, I interviewed all kinds of well-known people, but they almost always turned out as expected: Michael Palin was charming; Alan Ayckbourn was funny; Geoff Boycott was self-centred and rude. OK, there were exceptions – I found Arthur Scargill courteous and kind and Ian Botham incredibly dull. But I was rarely shocked. As a PR consultant, I am constantly shocked, though not, I hasten to add, always in a bad way.
On the debit side, I have been startled by a journalist yawning loudly and ostentatiously as I pitched a perfectly reasonable story down the ‘phone; by one client micro-managing our relationship by ringing up at least 10 times a day, seven days a week; by another client losing his temper when his mundane story didn’t make it into the Times; and by the vainest of men who complained every photo we took of him made him look deranged (he was!). Patience is not just a virtue but a necessity in PR but mine has occasionally worn thin over the years.
On the credit side, I have clients who have been with me since the very start and have become firm friends. Friends have become clients, too, though that can a difficult relationship to manage, as dynamics change. Journalists, apart from the rude lady who yawned down the ‘phone and a couple of other self-important dullards, have also become great friends, and not just because they print my stories!
I am not justifying my existence when I say that public relations, as an industry, is more important than ever. I am not talking about the controversial antics of people like the disgraced Max Clifford or the clutch of bloated agencies who charge outrageous amounts for managing a Twitter account and ring up journalists demanding to know why their press releases haven’t been printed. No, I am talking about the hard-working PR consultants who provide a stream of accurate, well-written and relevant stories, accompanied by excellent photography, for newspapers and on-line media outlets across the UK. As the regional press in particular is in sharp decline (the Yorkshire Post being an honourable exception here), a respected PR consultancy is a very valuable resource.
Back in 1998, I had to learn on the job – fast. Mistakes were varied and inevitable, especially a failure to manage expectations and wasting time on clients who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay. I also discovered that some unscrupulous companies would ask me to pitch for their business and then steal my PR strategy (I can almost hear PR colleagues sighing in agreement here). But, hey, it has been an exhilarating journey and it’s great to be one’s own boss. In this era of “fake news” and “Twitterstorms”, when news gathering has become a frantic, chaotic 24-hour operation, a responsible and grounded PR agency is a force for good.