PR problem? Hire a journalist… or rather don’t if you want to have successful PR

Simpson Associates corporate consultancy website cache

I actually laughed out loud when I read this story about the BBC’s world affairs editor John Simpson setting up a corporate consultancy to advise on crisis communications and then even more rapidly closing it again because of the crisis it created.

It would be even funnier if it wasn’t so tragic. The fact that John Simpson thought this was a good idea shows that even in 2016 there are many less than enlightened companies and governments who will fall for the ‘hire a journalist’ myth thinking it will be the panacea to all their PR problems. It won’t because journalists aren’t PR professionals.

Simpson’s explanation of what went wrong is even more alarming:

“The supposed facts in the Mail’s article are ludicrously inaccurate. I didn’t write or see the entries on my website, which was a work in progress, and wasn’t meant to go public.”

Ouch. He hopes to advise companies on corporate communications and crisis communications and he can’t even manage his own team doing something as basic as creating a simple website. Just imagine how much more complex managing a website and all of the other associated digital and social media will be during a crisis. It’s even worse as it appears it was actually John Simpson’s own personal Twitter account that revealed the existence of the ‘unapproved’ site enabling the Daily Mail to write its exposé.

But Simpson’s excuse, via an unnamed BBC spokesperson, appears to be that he wasn’t even responsible for that. According to a report in The Telegraph Simpson doesn’t run his own personal Twitter account, but lets someone else do it for him, which provides even less confidence in the capability of him and his corporate consultancy to actual counsel clients on how to do anything to do with corporate communications.

Simpson’s agent’s explanation is even more astounding:

“John Simpson is brand new to social media and still learning the ropes”

But not so new, he doesn’t think he can advise companies on crisis management and corporate communications. Good luck, on managing or advising on either if he doesn’t have a clue how social media works.

It also stretches credibility to believe Simpson wasn’t aware the site was public as the Simpson Associates website appears to have been available for over a month between 18 April and 27 May when the Daily Mail broke the story about Simpson breaching the BBC’s editorial guidelines. Although Simpson has now removed access to the website you can still see a cached version of the site that was originally published on 18 April.

The now deleted Simpson Associates website makes some fascinating claims not least of which is:

“Simpson Associates is a leader in handling crisis. We have extensive experience providing support to companies around the world”

Does it really? How can it possibly have experience if Simpson’s contract means as a BBC spokesman said:

“this would have been considered commercial work that is not compatible with BBC editorial guidelines or John’s role at the BBC as such John agrees he won’t be taking these activities forward.”

So either he hired a writer who has such as laissez faire attitude to the truth they just made it all up, or Simpson has already been doing this type of work in breach of BBC guidelines. According to his agent:

“Simpson has not yet taken on any corporate work.”

So that’s cleared that up. He just mistakenly or deliberately hired a writer who thinks good corporate communications is to make stuff up. I don’t think he’d find many corporate communications or PR professionals who agree with him.

Either way it’s not a ringing endorsement for his corporate consultancy to advise on “risk evaluation”, “corporate and cultural behaviour”, “handling crisis”, “media relations”, “media outreach”, “integrated solutions”, “campaign analytics”, “planning and management”, “business communications”, “stakeholder awareness and understanding” and “producing content” all of which it claims to be expert in.

Hack to flack

John_Simpson_at_Chatham_House_2015John Simpson isn’t the first journalist to think they can make a quick buck by flipping from hack to flack or poacher to gamekeeper and he won’t be the last. It’s understandable why journalists think they can do ‘public relations’ as their main experience of it is being on the receiving end of media relations. They don’t understand it’s only part of what public relations actually is.

The persistent problem is a lack of even rudimentary knowledge of public relations amongst those hiring people to advise them on PR. Too often because they perceive the problem to be the press or the media they therefore think the solution must come from the press or media. A big part of this lack of rudimentary knowledge of PR is because the media persistently reports “PR” as simply being about publicity or media relations, because that’s the part they are most often exposed to. It is the PR profession’s failure that it hasn’t done more to correct the misconception.

Despite being a former PR man himself David Cameron made the same mistake when he hired former News of the World editor Andy Coulson. Ed Miliband made it when he hired ex-Times journalist Tom Baldwin as senior adviser on ‘communications and strategy’ and former Mirror journalist Bob Roberts as director of communications. Two people in charge of communications, neither of which are professional communications specialists. That’s bound to go well isn’t it? Or not, as it turned out.

New Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn went one step farther and rather than even hiring a news journalist hired Seamus Milne who was a Guardian columnist so not even at the frontline of hard, investigative news journalism. The jury is still out on that one. Or maybe not.

The biggest problem in hiring a journalist to lead public relations is that their expertise is limited to journalism. Real public relations is about behaviour, reputation and relationships. It’s far more than just media relations. A real PR professional will be able to provide expert counsel on corporate and political strategy rather than just media relations and communications. A real PR professional will be able to advise on the impact on reputation of corporate behaviour, on using data and analytics for insight, measurement and evaluation and many more things that an ex-journalist will be ill-equipped to advise on.

A former journalist is very unlikely to immediately have the experience or expertise to qualify for full membership of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) and be bound by a professional code of conduct regulated by Royal Charter and governing professional practice and ethical conduct.

Do ex-journalists have a role in PR teams?

Yes, absolutely ex-journalists have a role in PR teams as news nouse, media relations, writing, story telling, editorial judgment, investigation, fact checking and much more are all vital public relations skills. However, being part of the team isn’t the same as providing strategic PR leadership. Ex-journalists need to develop their professional PR skills by experience, training, academic qualifications and participating in continuous professional development. Many former journalists have become outstanding PR practitioners.

However, what ex-journalists are unlikely to be able to do is jump straight in to the most senior public relations roles as no matter how stellar their journalistic credentials might be they aren’t yet going to be fully rounded, able and qualified PR professionals.

Many of the best PR people I know are former journalists, but none of them was so arrogant as to think they could successfully jump from a senior journalism role to a senior PR role. Equally many of the best PR people I know have never worked in journalism, but do understand how the media works and the importance of the expertise ex-journalists can provide as part of the PR profession.

However, modern public relations practice means that it’s not just journalists who should be part of the PR team. It’s also data analysts, illustrators, graphic designers, psychologists, lawyers, writers and many more professions and trades that are just as important for successful modern PR.

Reputation and relationships are too valuable to be left to chance or amateurs.

If you want to learn more about modern crisis communications, how journalists can best be part of a professional PR team or how to structure a modern PR  strategy and team then please get in touch.