Journalists and PR: an early perspective

Today I read a blog post by Stuart Bruce about how effective journalists are when they switch to public relations.

In response to the recent story about John Simpson’s corporate consultancy website, Stuart makes the point that journalists “are unlikely to be able to do is jump straight in to the most senior public relations roles as no matter how stellar their journalistic credentials might be”.

I broadly agree, though I do wonder if, despite the importance of public relations training, we can sometimes underestimate the ability of a journalist with lots of common sense to do our jobs effectively.

But following Stuart’s post, I was inspired to look back at what Basil Clarke, probably the first UK journalist to do public relations for a living, had to say about the skills you need to be successful.

In a 1929 lecture (some 12 years after he made the switch), Clarke set out the qualities required of a new recruit:

“He must be an expert in news-value – in finding news, preparing it in different journalistic forms to secure the best and widest Press reflex for it, also in distributing it to best advantage. He must be expert in news treatment, also the capacity to impart to a cold static fact some warm and dynamic news quality,a ‘time’ factor, an ‘authority’ factor, a ‘human interest’ factor, and all the other factors that go to the make-up of news-value…

“I do think, however, that the duties of a press agent who is directing or advising in the public relations of a big undertaking or movement demand something more than ordinary journalistic qualifications. They demand a knowledge of men and affairs more comparable with an editor’s knowledge; a certain aptitude for, and knowledge of, business and administration which a journalist need not necessarily possess.”

Best bits of Hamilton Fyfe’s autobiography

hamilton fyfe
Hamilton Fyfe

I’ve just finished reading My Seven Selves, the autobiography of the journalist Hamilton Fyfe, who was an early editor of the Daily Mirror and later a First World War correspondent for the Daily Mail.

It’s by no means a classic autobiography (Fyfe’s history of Fleet Street is better) but I thought it would be worth noting down the best bits.

Winston Churchill

It is interesting to hear Fyfe looking back at the career of Winston Churchill and, writing in 1935, viewing him as someone who failed to become Prime Minister. Describing Churchill’s decision to join the Liberals, he wrote: “By his decision then Churchill, I consider, ruined his career. If he had supported the [Joseph] Chamberlain policy [of tariff reform] he would have established himself as future leader of the Conservative Party.”

Fyfe was also editor of the left-wing Daily Herald during the General Strike in 1926, also described Churchill’s stint as editor of the British Gazette (which was run by the Government during the strike):

“Churchill… was detested by his staff. They were all delighted when a leading article written by him was heavily censored. He sent for the censor, who did not disclose the nature of the interview, but who, after that, passed everything put before him, in case Churchill might have had some hand in it.”

The experience of First World War

Fyfe’s summary of what it was like to report on the bloodshed of the First World War is, I think, a really good description of the futility of war:

“The first cart of dead that I saw, legs sticking out stiffly, heads lolling on shoulders, all the poor bodies shovelled into a bit and covered with quicklime, made me wonder what their owners had been doing when they were called up, crammed into uniforms, and told to kill, maim, mutilate other men like themselves, with whom they had no quarrel. All of them had left behind many who would be grieved, perhaps beggared, by their taking off. And all for no purpose, for nothing.”

Daily Mail’s approach to Germans

In my biography of Daily Mail reporter Basil Clarke, I noted with admiration that one of Clarke’s reports mentioned an act of kindness by German soldiers. So it was interesting to hear about Fyfe’s experience of the Mail’s approach to Germans during its war coverage:

The war atmosphere in the Mail office was indicated by a reproving cable, [Thomas] Marlowe, the editor, sent me once when I had mentioned some kindly act by enemy soldiers. “Nothing wanted,” he said, “about good kind Germans. There are no good Germans but dead Germans.”

Ramsay MacDonald

Given the often difficult relationships between politicians and journalists, I was interested in Fyfe’s response when Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald wrote to him to complain his newspaper had become “a dumping-ground for rubbish which would be put in the waste-paper basket by anyone who knew his business, or who was not out for mischief.”

Fyfe replied: “I have had to do with so many Prime Ministers that I am not surprised by the petulant tone of your letter… You tell me I don’t know my business as an editor. Assuredly I have much yet to learn, but I have been in training for 30 years. You have been Prime Minister for eight months without any previous experience. Isn’t it just possible that you have some things to learn to?”