Fourth estate has more perk than pitfall

First published in the Financial Times on 20th August 2013.

Many captains of industry assume the press are the enemy; the opposite can be the case

How should entrepreneurs behave towards the media? Many are fearful of public exposure, and avoid contact at all costs. They prefer to remain anonymous and private. Others, for instance the participants in shows such as Dragons’ Den or Undercover Boss, relish the media’s embrace as a new career. They love the publicity, and no doubt believe it helps their businesses.

I always took the view that public relations has two great advantages over advertising: first, it is free; and second, that editorial copy has more impact and credibility than paid-for messages. So from the age of 18 I have been willing to encourage publicity for my ventures by engaging with journalists.

Now, I come from a family of people who write for newspapers, so perhaps I was always fairly confident when talking to reporters – perhaps too confident on occasion. Unfortunately, I have given my share of bad interviews, suffered (what I consider) hatchet jobs and made some terrible broadcasts. These are the sort of experiences that put so many business owners off any contact with the fourth estate.

But despite that, I’d recommend that anyone starting a new business on a modest budget take the risk, and seek attention from websites, newspapers, magazines, bloggers, television, radio and any other form of media. It is a competitive and busy world out there, and if your customers don’t know you exist you’ll never make any sales.

Moreover, journalists have to generate more copy than ever in the digital age – so if you can provide a genuine story (and publicise your project too) then you are pretty likely to obtain coverage.

Even during a crisis it can pay to communicate with the media rather than ignore them. An open conversation may at least generate some positive copy to counterbalance the inevitable bad publicity.

I’ve grown to respect the work of skilled PR agents more as I’ve seen them in action. The better ones know how to pitch a story and generate interest from the right quarters.

Because of this weekly column I receive dozens of press releases and approaches, which I usually ignore, but occasionally a really clever overture will succeed. Inevitably, the younger generation are the ones who embrace the online world of social media with the greatest finesse. Mostly I prefer working with small PR operations with low overheads, where you are serviced by a senior executive for whom you are a client that matters.

Journalists will very rarely simply push the angle you want. They often approach a business story from a sceptical view. Inevitably, they want the personal element in any article – they are probably more interested in your house, car and net worth than the products you are trying to promote.

Every profile is a trade-off: information you are willing to share against coverage they are willing to devote to your business. Ultimately, the writer and their editor decide what goes in the piece. And never think you can manipulate a journalist to print your version of the truth: competent ones will cross-check the facts.

Many captains of industry assume the press are their enemy. In fact the opposite can be the case. Sir Richard Branson has always assiduously courted journalists and his activities have, in my opinion, been reported in a friendly way as a consequence. Indeed, positive appearances in the media have been a vital way of building the Virgin brand.

Often I am rung up because a journalist has heard a rumour about an acquisition we might be about to make. Usually I come out with a bland response such as, “We never comment on market rumours”, whatever the truth of the suggestion. Occasionally, one feels obliged to offer more, for good or bad reasons. You can talk off the record or on an unattributable basis, and all respectable writers will honour that curious code. Inevitably, if you help a reporter they are more likely to give your side of events a sympathetic airing. But don’t expect any favours: their job is to reveal the news – their loyalties are to their readers.

Work with the media and you will probably benefit – but bear in mind that the internet means both that the story soon moves on and that the coverage has a long afterlife.