The age-old tensions between hacks and PR folk should be abandoned and forgotten, believes PR business owner AND freelance BBC journalist John Gelson. Here he reveals why.
“Credibility is vital in PR. That means being as open as you can, and working WITH journalists – the old adage of ‘them and us’ simply doesn’t work for PRs OR hacks.”
This is the view held by media all-rounder John Gelson – who not only runs his own PR agency (Next Stop Communications), but also works as a freelance journo for the BBC.
“I guess I’m living proof that it IS possible to be a journalist AND a PR person at the same time!” said John, whose first job in journalism was at the Hartlepool Mail in 1984.
“Despite what some journalists will tell you, there isn’t an enormous difference between what they do and what a PR does – and yes, journalists DO need PRs to keep those stories coming.
“The lesson is simple – if you’re a PR, think about how the journalist works and how you can make it easier for them to tell your story. That helps immensely when you come to sell your story; whether as a press release or by a call to the news editor of a local newspaper.
“Social media has undoubtedly changed the game though. It’s how journalists communicate with us as PRs, as well as with their readers – and it has fuelled the rise of ‘citizen journalism’ too – with images and film footage able to go live around the world from a phone in seconds.
“But social media is also increasingly important as a way to positively promote PR events – and that side of PR is only going to get bigger. Anyone entering the industry today needs to know it inside out.”
Life on radio waves not all plain sailing
John’s move into PR took several decades, via a sub-editing role at the Sunderland Echo, reporting on Wearside for BBC Radio Newcastle and work as a producer at BBC Radio Cleveland.
“I was involved with various small radio projects at first, and once broadcast from Hartlepool in a room with walls covered in cardboard egg boxes – the cheapest of soundproofing – while a turntable which had just caught fire was lifted out over my head!” he said.
“Working in Sunderland for a radio station with the word ‘Newcastle’ in its name was also interesting – as was turning up in a radio car covered with pink logos!
“Digital broadcasting was still a couple of years away and recordings were still made using reel to reel tape on a heavy recorder called a Uher – usually held together with elastic bands.
“Those bands snapped one day while I was on the staircase of a bus in Sunderland, rushing to get a story on air. The tape cascaded down the stairs, with me gathering armfuls of it up and gasping to bemused passengers “BBC … hurrying with the news!”
Switching track and changing careers
Despite these early mishaps, John went on to become news editor for BBC Radio Cleveland; helping the station win a Sony Gold Award for Live Coverage of a News Event in 2003.
But, after spotting a job ad in the Guardian, John changed career tracks quite literally just the next year – when he was appointed Media Relations Manager for rail operator GNER.
“Ex hacks have lots of transferable skills for the PR world – writing being the obvious one,” he said. “But, much more than that, it is knowing how to tell a story with journalistic credibility that sells the product you’re trying to PR.
“PR is a great career move for former journalists as well as new starters. It’s varied, even exciting at times.
“My best moment was watching a flypast over York by a Lancaster, Spitfire and Hurricane trio of aircraft over the unveiling of a train named after the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight by TV’s Carol Vorderman – broadcast live and watched on the ground by several thousand people. Show me the ordinary 9 to 5 job that puts you in the middle of that!”
John was part of the GNER team which won PR Week’s Gold Campaign Award in 2005 and, while working for East Coast a few years later, he helped the rail firm secure several PR plaudits too.
“We broke new ground with the launch of 24-7 social media, a train naming programme which won extensive media coverage and even a partnership with Bond movie Skyfall, which saw images of a specially liveried train shown around the globe,” he said.
“But internal comms was a key part of the story too – a Sky One TV series ‘All Aboard: East Coast Trains’ took viewers behind the scenes to meet the characters who keep the railway wheels turning.”
In 2015, however, John decided to leave his rail job and, with help from business start-up agency Yorkshire Coast Enterprise, set up his own PR firm – Next Stop Communications.
Bus operator Transdev is now among his clients and, when John isn’t PR-ing, he can found working as a freelance journalist and newsreader with BBC Tees in Middlesbrough.
“So – I have a stake in both PR and journalism, at the same time. And I’m happy in both – that’s what really counts,” he said.
“My predictions for PR in 2017 are that the rise and rise of social media will continue, but that the decline of newspapers will continue too. This saddens me as an ex hack but the reality is, local papers will continue to shrink in size and influence, especially outside the big cities.”