A few years ago, the politician and journalist Matthew Parris made a film for Channel 4’s ‘Without Walls’ strand, in which he declared public relations to be an utterly pointless industry, without merit or use. He was forced to eat his words, a couple of days later – when it emerged he was a client of at least one PR consultancy – but was onto something? If PR didn’t exist, would anybody bother to invent it?
In the late 1990s I worked in an office in Soho which shared a corridor with a public relations company. Its major client was a very famous television presenter, and he retained the firm for their ‘clippings’ service. Essentially, three benighted people would spend their days scouring the press for mentions of this fellow. When they spotted one, they’d cut it out, paste it to a sheet of A4, and add it to a cardboard folder. As if to add further Orwellian flavour to this activity, the team knew their client never looked at the folders they biked to him each evening. He’d told them he wasn’t much interested, and didn’t have the time. Still, he paid for their work, and they dutifully carried it out.
You can tell this preceded the internet boom. Although I’m sure some poor souls still trawl the world’s servers, identifying references to certain names, in truth a Google news alert would do the same job automatically. Clippings services may have had their day, but if they ever had a point, it wasn’t the obvious one.
As you might imagine, publications and websites attract a fair amount of PR traffic – the bulk of which takes the form of press releases. Outside the murky world of the media, I suspect most folk would be astonished by the number of these things in daily circulation. It’s a good job most of them are now electronically transmitted, otherwise trees would be as rare as Andy Murray’s smiles. The virtual world is saturated with press releases. Messages announcing new flavours of crisp; touring productions of undersold musicals; forthcoming legislation on Japanese Knotweed; the opening of new public lavatories in minor market towns; and the imminent arrival of some dreadful tyrant on a trade mission, are sprayed around the globe in volumes to shame a water cannon. Every second, somebody somewhere is receiving an unsolicited missive about something. Almost without exception, this torrent of puff emanates from PR agencies, and, like their cousin the spam email, a huge percentage of it goes unread.
Hardly surprising. Most of the press releases we receive come from music PRs, a select few of whom we work with regularly and do a splendid job. But they are in the minority. Because the useful offers of interviews with interesting musicians, or requests to partner labels in an exciting competition, are dwarfed by the mountain of badly written, poorly constructed and bizarrely arranged paragraphs, about bands you don’t recognise, playing music you’d never want to hear. They’re poorly targeted too. With no knowledge or regard for the material favoured by the RV, we are regularly urged to promote obscure dubstep DJs, or solo projects by bass players of barely remembered speed metal bands. Of course, such press releases aren’t sent exclusively to us. We’re one of a few hundred unfortunates covered by the blanket email. I’d be most surprised if more than a handful of these communications garner any worthwhile coverage at all.
But, if there is little or no benefit to the press release tornado, why do it? There are a few reasons. Primarily, it’s because the entertainment industry has always had a symbiotic relationship with the press, the performer needs the publicity, the media needs the story. And so it has always been done this way. A blind toss of dart into the room, in the hope it will hit somebody’s board. Nobody has given any serious consideration to a more productive alternative. Then there’s the commercial aspect. As long as record labels (and ultimately artists) are prepared to fund a press release campaign, then there will always be an agency prepared to write and send the things – regardless of their efficacy. And finally, there’s something altogether more human, more psychological.
Clearly PR is about more than the creation of press releases, though. The industry would argue it is a buffer between those with a public profile (or seeking one) and those with an interest in exploiting it. Well, maybe – but this is a self-perpetuating position. As PR firms are also engaged in the business of creating stories and courting the press, they are equally responsible for conjuring the need to manage that relationship. Once upon a time, a decent press officer would have been an adequate buffer. Now, vast corporations are built on the premise.
Fortunately for the PR business, the product isn’t measurable. Oh sure, I’ve been around the block enough times to know clients receive reports on column inches, airtime, social media exposure and the like, but there’s no comparison. How much of this would be achieved through genuine interest, straight-ahead marketing and reasonably professional management? There are more smoke and mirrors in play than anyone would care to admit.
I mentioned PR services may have a definite purpose, albeit not one that’s immediately apparent. And it’s this: the public relations industry does much of its business thanks to the egos of those who patronise it. That TV presenter stockpiling his clippings without a glance; that metal-head bassist forking out for his unloved press releases, and a thousand others – they all love their PR agencies, because they make them feel important enough to need a PR agency. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.