• February 2013

The Days of PR 'Spin' Are Over: Journalist Jeremy Hazlehurst Explains Why

Every day, British freelance writer Jeremy Hazlehurst is bombarded with emails and pitches from PR people hoping to entice him to write about their client or company.

“Life is hectic,” says Hazlehurst, who covers business and financial news and has written for the Daily Telegraph and The Times. “Most days you are working hard and trying to hit deadlines, … and if you are an editor, too, you’re dealing with picture editors, commission writers, and photoshoots,” he says. “If we don’t respond to a pitch, that’s why.”

But he doesn’t wish PR pitches would go away. “I like receiving them, because you never know what will spark an idea.”

Hazlehurst has been a freelance writer since he and his wife had their first child. He continues to enjoy it because he hates meetings and likes working at home and seeing more of his kids. Despite the drawbacks—“you miss the cut-and-thrust of being in an office,” he notes—the trade-offs are worth it. Not only is he much more efficient, “the commute takes 30 seconds and is free.”

As a writer who has covered the PR industry for years, Hazlehurst’s perspective is valuable to PR professionals. Be Inkandescent asked Hazlehurst for his view of how the PR industry has changed and why it’s getting more respect.

Scroll down for Be Inkandescent’s Q&A with Hazlehurst.

Be Inkandescent: Traditionally, there’s been tension between PR and journalism professionals, with journalists supposedly seeking the truth, and PR folks seeking to spin the truth, facts be damned, to the benefit of any paying client. As a journalist who covers the Public Relations industry, how do you see PR?

Jeremy Hazlehurst: I think that sort of opposition is an old-fashioned way of seeing things, if it were ever true at all. (Journalists always think there’s a story they are not being told, which is probably true, but I don’t buy the idea that it’s because evil PR people are keeping it from them. Life’s a bit more complicated than that.)

Still, there are some bad PR reps who will lie to you, and worse. When I worked for a financial newspaper, I’d deal with PR reps who would simply threaten to sue if you published a (perfectly true) story about their client or employer misbehaving. Other times when I’ve been on a tight deadline, I’ve asked a PR rep a question, and they would get back to me at 6 p.m. with a 400-page document and say: “The answer’s in there. You find it.” That style of PR shows a total lack of ethics and competence. It’s very bad behavior, and destructive. It stops the press performing its legitimate function.

In general, however, good PR reps realize that they can’t behave like that—they have to face a bad story and deal with it. Good PR reps help you with a story and understand that you have to be critical and ask questions. Journalists have a duty to the readers to ask the question they would ask if they had the time to become well-informed.

If PR reps want an advertisement, they can buy one.

Be Inkandescent: As a journalist, what type of PR pitches do you respond to?

Jeremy Hazlehurst: None, really. It’s rare for PR people to really understand what works as a story, at a particular time, and for a particular publication. Interview offers might work. That’s about it.

Be Inkandescent: What turns you off about a PR pitch?

Jeremy Hazlehurst: Too much detail. Tell me in one line who is up for an interview, or what the idea is. Thousands of words of detail are a waste of time. I just don’t have time to read it.

Be Inkandescent: In your Jan. 1, 2013, article for Management Today on Spin Masters: How PR is taking over the world, you note that England’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, was once director of corporate affairs for a British media company for seven years, and that other prominent businesses are now headed by former PR folks. Why do you think PR people are able to step into these top spots now?

Jeremy Hazlehurst: Well, David Cameron is an interesting character. He was known when he was in communications (“comms”) for being arrogant, rude, and unpleasant, one of the ones who’d threaten to sue you if you had a negative story. His government is a disaster-zone, PR-wise.

On the broader point, PR used to be seen as peripheral, but now people realize that reputation and trust are integral to a business. If people don’t trust you, it doesn’t matter what you say or do, nobody will believe it. (See David Cameron’s government.)

The BP oil-spill shows how a PR problem—the way the CEO was perceived in the US—can spiral out of control. That was an odd one, in fact. BP’s CEO was seen as “a toff” (a snooty aristocrat), when in fact he was a working-class boy who done good. Perception was far from reality, and better PR handling would have prevented that.

The other reason for the ascendance of PR is that issues that were once written off as PR—in the sense of being peripheral—are becoming central. For example, take sustainability. Not that long ago, a few people in the marketing or PR department would be tasked once a year with producing a brochure saying how green they were. These days firms like Wal-Mart and Unilever are putting sustainability right at the heart of their businesses.

One of the reasons for the change is that people increasingly want their businesses to be sustainable. It’s the PR people who know this stuff, because they are the ones listening to what people want, and they are telling their company’s board what customers like and don’t like about the business. People know more about businesses these days, and they don’t want to buy from businesses that use child-labor, pollute, and underpay their staff.

Be Inkandescent: How do you think the increased prominence of PR will affect business?

Jeremy Hazlehurst: I think that the days of spin are over—as I said, the Internet means that people are better informed about businesses. You can’t just tell lies and expect not to be found out. I hope that businesses will become better—in the sense of giving people what they want.

The other thing to remember is that the role of PR or communications professionals has widened. These days businesses interact with customers directly through Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and so on. If you are running all those things, then obviously you need more people in PR. If you have people at high levels in a business who understand how all this works, then that should mean that businesses are more innovative when it comes to communications.

Be Inkandescent: In your Management Today article, you quoted PR expert Tim Bell as saying, “Twitter is a sewer. The Internet is a sewer. If you want to live in a transparent world, then someone has to give the information about you. If you don’t want someone else to, you have to do it yourself. That’s what PR people do.” Do you agree with Bell’s comment?

Jeremy Hazlehurst: The problem with Twitter is that it is an echo-chamber for ill-thought-out, first-reaction ideas. And people follow a crowd. Take the release last year of a 30-minute video about Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony, which was crass and simplistic, but went around the world in no time at all. People who know about Africa despaired.

We had another problem in the UK last year when the BBC implicated a former politician as a pedophile. The politician, who was totally innocent, was then identified on Twitter. That was what Tim Bell was specifically referring to. This is a problem with social media—people are often ill-informed or don’t understand what constitutes libel, and they don’t realize that they can get in trouble for speaking their mind. So reputations can be trashed quickly and groundlessly.

In the old days, newspapers stood between writers and readers. There are good and bad things about that, but one of the good things was that people didn’t publish things without checking them. On the Internet anyone can say anything. We all need to find a way to deal with that. For PR reps, that’s about learning how to react to lies.

In general, though, I don’t think this is anything new, really; you always have to be proactive about your image and reputation. Things like Twitter have just intensified things.

Be Inkandescent: What do you wish more PR people understood about journalism?

Jeremy Hazlehurst: Please, please don’t call to check if I got your email!

About Jeremy Hazlehurst

London-based freelance journalist Jeremy Hazlehurst tries to look at the world of business from a slightly oblique angle, from writing about business schools run by Opus Dei to asking whether sports teams can ever make you money. He writes for the Financial Times, is an editor-at-large of the UK’s leading business monthly, Management Today, and edits a magazine called NXG for the next generation of super-wealthy family business owners.

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