How PR has changed: An interview with Managing Director Duncan Hopwood and Account Manager Alex Shah

  1. How has the emergence of social media changed the PR industry?

MD: The big difference is that it has made us much more interested in real engagement and conversations with our target audiences, rather than simply putting out messages to them in a largely one-way fashion. Before social media, if you wanted to reach people in a particular location, no matter who they were, if you could get your release or interview into their local newspaper, it was job done. Now those newspapers, like a lot of other publications, are a shadow of their former selves. Instead we have a number of different channels that we can target, and we can do things like Facebook advertising to target segmented audiences for example.

AM: The press release is now a news release, which can be used across a number of different channels, some that we control such as the client’s website and social media channels, and all sorts of different outlets. It is not just a press release for a specific publication or section of the conventional media.

  1. In what ways have client briefs changed? (Do clients now request things that they maybe wouldn’t have 10 years ago?)

MD: In areas like PR, marketing, and advertising, there used to be a feeling that ‘the advertising people know what they’re talking about so we’ll just hand it over to them and we’ll take their recommendation’. However, people question everything nowadays, and I think that client briefs and the process of winning new clients are more detailed. The brief has changed from often being ‘can you get my name into the paper’ to ‘how can we reach our target audiences and generate new sales or convince people to consider our argument and change their opinion about a particular issue’.

AM: People feel that they have more experience now, because they might have their own social media channels or a personal blog or website. It makes them more interested to know the details and specifics behind strategies and campaigns before engaging with PR.

  1. Are clients now more interested in gaining an online presence, rather than featuring in print news?

AM: I think it depends on the company and the sector. In property, they still value print news, especially the trades. But I think any company still values national newspaper coverage. I think that will always be valuable.

MD: Some are, it depends on their objectives, the industry that they are in and their understanding of the value of their online presence. I was presenting to a client group recently who needed a lot of convincing that they should be investing in digital, and I had to show them charts of national newspaper circulations plummeting while people’s use of social media is rocketing up, to convince them that we should be investing time and effort into this area, as well as in the national news print scene. The younger generation of business people in, for example, Leicester don’t read the local paper in print but they do read its website. Generally, the more important trade and professional magazines do still hold sway, and people do want to be in those, in their print or online editions, especially when it’s a business to business environment.

  1. Has the relationship between journalists and PR professionals changed in any way?

AM: I used to spend a lot of time building relationships with journalists, meeting them for lunches etc. I do less of that now because they move around a lot, they’re stretched for time and resources and they just want quick, easy wins. I don’t even speak on the phone to them as much as I used to. With respectable publications and the nationals, you have to show that you have solid new research or a really strong story that is reliable to win their attention.

MD: They have to fill their newspapers and websites every day, so they rely on the PR industry to generate content and ideas. Most publications would not be able to function without input from the PR industry. When I was a journalist I was always going to events and press conferences, going out to do interviews, but they don’t do that now. I wouldn’t recommend having a press conference now, unless it was to manage a crisis situation where a lot of journalists were clawing for information. It works much more effectively if you develop a relationship, which may be by email or twitter, and fulfil the individual journalist’s actual requirements. We’ve had much more coverage in the nationals by responding to stories that journalists wanted to write, rather than us trying to convince them to do a story that they didn’t already have.

  1. How has the decline in print newspapers affected the PR industry?

AM: I think that we now have to focus on different things, and focus on channels that target audiences will be reading or accessing in a different way such as YouTube. So I’d say there has been a change in tactics.

MD: We are now much more likely to generate content for clients in newspapers than we were because they rely more on us as an industry for content. But on the other hand that coverage is going to be seen by fewer readers. So as Alex said, we now have to use different ways of engaging with audiences.

  1. Has the demand for PR work increased over time?

AM: No company can just ignore their online presence like websites and social media. They need it for winning new business and also for recruitment. The younger generation look on websites and social media for information about a company. So I think it’s foolish for any company to ignore that. It’s a full time, every day thing that you need to be constantly on top of.

MD: I think it’s quite complicated because what PR is now is different to what it was. Has demand for conventional media relations increased significantly? No. Is there more demand for PR agencies that can effectively communicate as part of a marketing programme? Yes, and there are also growth areas that incorporate social responsibility. It’s about arguments and changing people’s minds. Carrying out public consultations, engaging with stakeholders, working with charities and volunteering – areas that are not specifically focused on sales and marketing, and may not even be commissioned by a commercial business, have definitely grown.

  1. Has it been difficult to adapt to changes in the PR industry?

MD: It has required a lot of time and energy, but I haven’t found it difficult. As a member of the CIPR and the PRCA, I have access to the latest thinking about how PR, communications and social media work together. I’ve spent a lot of time reading about that, looking at case studies, seeing how what’s happening in consumer markets might apply to business in the property sector in particular. I wouldn’t say it has been difficult, more of an enjoyable challenge!

AM: I only started about ten years ago when people were already using the internet. It’s only social media that has changed dramatically for me.

  1. Despite PR changing over time, what key things have stayed the same over your career?

MD: Journalists still think that they are better writers than PR people. Largely, I would say that is true (speaking as a former journalist!). A good story idea well told, which could be in video format, or even an infographic, still beats everything else. Good ideas still help to set you apart. Social media isn’t actually a million times different to the real pre-digital world. I always say that LinkedIn always reminds me of how the property sector works, in that you can look at what your peers are doing, you can make connections, you can join groups together, and you can message each other. All of that existed before, it just wasn’t done on LinkedIn, so in many ways, things haven’t changed as much as it sometimes seems. We had an interesting conversation with one client in the property sector about how business was generally won and large projects brought to fruition by people knowing each other, having lunch with each other, beers after work and breakfast meetings etc. The next generation will need to make those same connections too but they may do more of it online, and it’s interesting to see the rise of BIM in the sector which is a way that different disciplines in the sector work collaboratively online.

AM: Journalists still want good quality, exclusive if possible, relevant things to them. And for you to have read their publication and previous articles and know what they want. Because they receive hundreds of calls about things that aren’t relevant and because they are under-resourced, you need to be able to pitch a story idea succinctly.