This week for my Interview Series, we have Andrew Smith, Director at escherman, talk about his career path, current role, changes he’s seen in the PR industry over the years and his thoughts on the future of PR.
1. Before working in PR, you spent a couple of years working as a Deputy News Editor at a weekly UK publishing trade title. Can you talk about your experience working there and why you decided to enter the PR industry afterwards?
I started life as an editorial assistant on the Retail Newsagent Tobacconist and Confectioner in September 1985. In spite of appearances, this was an excellent training ground in journalism. One of my former predecessors in this role at the magazine – Mark Haysom – went on to become Chief Executive of Trinity Group Newspapers and one of the most powerful people in British newspaper publishing.
Even while I was there, the magazine was suddenly at the forefront of mainstream news developments. You have to remember this was when Rupert Murdoch was revolutionising the newspaper industry in Britain – moving distribution from rail to road, taking on the print unions, Wapping, etc – we were reporting on the same things as national print and broadcast media. I was going to press conferences and working alongside top national newspaper journalists. For example, Raymond Snoddy, the then hugely influential Media Correspondent for the Financial Times would ring me to check on particular aspects of news trade distribution (though as a rookie journalist I confess to being in complete awe of such a titan of journalism).
This was also a time which saw the first new UK national newspapers launched in decades. I covered the launch of Eddy Shah’s Today newspaper and interviewed Andreas Whittam-Smith, the founder of the Independent. I also interviewed Robert Maxwell for the launch of the ill fated London Daily News.
So where did PR enter the frame? When I started as a journalist, I had no idea about public relations (as far I knew, PR stood for proportional representation).
Or rather, I had no idea a whole industry existed to try and provide me as a journalist with material to write about. In those days, we’d get a massive mail sack at the office basically full of paper-based press releases. One of the most useful tools I had was a massive metal spike on which 99pc of press releases would be unceremoniously terminated. I’d get calls from breathless PR people asking me if I’d got their client’s press release and would I be writing about them?
I’ll be honest. My early view of PR from a journalist perspective was not good. But over time, I came to realise that there were good PRs. These were the ones that would provide good information and knew how to pitch me a story. I also realised that PR people seemed to get paid quite a bit more than journalists. Surely I could do that? So in 1988, I decided to give PR a go. I told myself that if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to journalism.
I started life as a PR executive with a small PR agency. Before I started the job, I had the stereotypical journalist view that my day would consist of writing press releases and taking journalists to lunch. How wrong could I be. Suddenly I had to deal with things like client management, budgeting, campaign planning, negotiation and a whole host of other things that journalists never see. I admit that in the early days, I did question whether I had made the right decision. However, I decided that if I was to stay in PR, I should work for a PR firm that specialised in something I really enjoyed. Hence my move in 1989 to join tech PR firm Keene Communications where I ended up running one of the iconic tech PR accounts of the era: Borland – the rest is history.
2. As Director at escherman, can you give us an overview of your role and the sort of projects you work on?
My role is partly to define what services we should offer clients and to then determine how best we can deliver them. The kinds of projects we mostly get involved with today largely revolve around helping clients best understand how to marry to together PR, social media and SEO into a coherent mix, while also using advanced analytics techniques to measure and evaluate programmes. As a by-product of this, we are increasingly asked to provide training in all of these areas – so this is a growing aspect of the business.
3. What’s a typical day for you like?
I guess the cliche answer would be to say there is no such thing as a typical day
But certainly a lot of my time is spent delivering training workshops, attending client meetings, planning campaigns and keeping up to speed with latest developments in all aspects of digital.
And it goes without saying that I spend time every day using a variety of social and SEO tools to keep on top of everything. Personal favourites included Hootsuite, Nimble, Lissted and MajesticSEO.
4. I read that you were the second PR professional in the UK to begin sending press releases via e-mail in 1991, which is amazing. Having seen so many changes to the PR industry over the years, I’m interested to know whether you think there are some things that have stayed the same?
I’ve dined out for years on the email press release story. I got exposed to email in 1989 through my work at Keene with Borland. I joined one of the UK’s first online bulletin boards (CIX) around the same time. It was here I discovered that there were journalists using the service to have online conversations and – gasp – email each other. I think the first press release I emailed went to about 5 journalists. One of them was the then Technology Editor of The Guardian newspaper, Jack Schofield. It was Jack that suggested that Frank O’Mahoney (then UK PR Manager at Apple) and myself were the first UK PRs do to this (although the honour of being first went to Frank).
The point of mentioning all of this is that one of the key things that has stayed the same is the importance of relationships. Looking back at my early use of email, the key thing was that it only worked if you had already established a relationship with someone and taken the time to properly understand their needs. PR has always been about relationships. And always will be. In spite of the huge changes in technology and society over the last 30 years, the fundamental need for building and maintaining relationships with people is more important than ever.
5. With the rise of social media and shrinking of traditional newsrooms, what are your thoughts on the future of the PR industry? What sort of skills do you see becoming increasingly valuable?
I am quite optimistic about the future of the PR industry. At least for those PR professionals who accept the reality of the world we are in and can adapt and change quickly enough.
I’ve been banging on for some time about research that Google did last year which showed that 90pc of all media consumption today is done via a screen – TV, PC, laptop, mobile or tablet. Print represents a tiny proportion of media consumption. And yet much of the PR sector is still mainly focussed on print coverage. And yet Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP basically came out last week and confirmed Google’s research – namely, that there is massive disconnect between expenditure on print PR, advertising and marketing and where consumers spend their time.
Traditional PR skills of creating great editorial style content and relationship building should play well in the screen-driven mobile/social world we are living in. The key additional skill that PRs everywhere must develop is in analytics, measurement and evaluation. The old excuses that PR measurement was too difficult or too expensive won’t wash anymore. There are techniques available to all PRs that can prove a much more robust connection between activity and measurable impact. For example, Google Analytics is a free tool that can show both the direct and indirect impact of PR and social media against defined goals. For those PR professionals who are prepared to invest time and energy in these areas, then I’d say the future is very bright indeed.
***To get in touch with Andrew or read more from him, check out blog.escherman.com***