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Media relations in the UK vs. the US

London. It’s big, it’s bustling, it’s got every modern convenience one would expect in a major international city, and it sits up there on list of the world’s greatest cities alongside New York, Hong Kong and others. But London is illusory to a certain extent. Unlike New York, beyond London isn’t a 3000-mile wide country with three time zones and 300 million people. Beyond London is a little island, home to 60 million people- it takes a mere 16 hours to drive from top to bottom! So, how does this relate to PR? Well, coming from the US, home to a seemingly infinite number of media markets, outlets, TV channels (and living in London), it’s easy to forget that I’m really dealing with a much smaller media market and ultimately, fewer journalists!

In the US I worked hard to build relationships with my media friends (not least because that’s my favorite part of PR- being out meeting the people and pitching a story), and over time I made some great contacts that I keep in touch with even though I’ve moved overseas. In the UK, I’ve been working hard to do the same, which leads me to what, from my own observations, is the biggest difference between US and UK press: UK press actually answer the phone and get back to me (more often than not)! No disrespect to my US media friends- I know how insane life in a newsroom can be- but it does seem that the overall relationship between the media and the PRs is better here, a stronger mutual understanding of the job each is trying to do. Being told ‘no’ by a journalist with some feedback is always better than radio silence and having to tell a client “We just couldn’t reach Bobby at that major national paper you want to be in. He just doesn’t answer the phone or respond to emails.” My new-found media friends have been very open to meeting me for coffees and lunches to talk about how best to work with them- it makes sense that if they meet me once and let me know how they like to pitched, it reduces the likelihood of time wasted with off-topic pitches in the future.

Other than the journalists themselves, my observation of the media as an institution in the UK is that it’s much more sensational, and a lot tougher on its subjects. The US can sometimes seem a bit fluffy by comparison. During a coveted interview with Obama, a US journalist wouldn’t dream of asking some of the questions our Prime Ministers get from the likes of Jeremy Paxman, or outright disagreeing with him. This again emphasizes the importance of those close relationships. And, back to the small market thing- 60 million people and yet a very broad selection of daily national papers: The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Mail, The Independent, the famous ‘red tops’ of which News of the World was one. This means that the “Extra! Extra! Read all about it!” theme still readily exists here too. Big, splashy exclusive headlines are highly desired.

Despite all this, however, the fundamentals of doing PR in the UK are the same as in the US, and around the world, I imagine. A proper understanding of the media you’re pitching and the message you’re sending, strong writing and presentation skills to convey that message and a willingness to get out and actually go and relate to the public are vital, and will take you far wherever you may be.

Bringing it to Blighty

Born and raised in the UK, I had 15 very happy years in the United States following my family’s relocation to the East Coast when I was a teenager. I’ve always had something of a longing, however, to get back to London and get to know the city and country on my own terms. It was therefore with great enthusiasm that I took on the role of Director for Allison+Partners, a mid-size US agency with ten offices in the States, to oversee the launch of its first overseas office in London, my real hometown.

As you might imagine, bringing a US-only brand to an extremely competitive PR market is not without its challenges, not least due to the fact that upon arrival I didn’t even have an office! Allison+Partners UK therefore officially launched from my kitchen table in southwest London against a backdrop of BBC Breakfast and The Wright Stuff. From there I started reading- the broadsheets, the blogs, the PR publications, the tweets- to get the lay of the land with regard to both PR in general and my particular area of expertise, which is technology. Extremely passionate about media relations, I quickly began to reach out to The Guardian, FT, The Times, the BBC and so on to make myself known to the key people there and find out how best to work with them. A little sense of humor goes a long way, I’ve found (Hi journalist, I’m a flack new to London…), and I’ve had excellent meetings with all of the above and beyond. Their insights have been extremely helpful and I’ve been able to apply that knowledge when speaking to potential new business prospects here, which leads me to the next challenge! I’ve cracked the media scene, but how does one find out where the potential opportunities are? Well, a few ways. First of all, it’s been vital for me to tap into any and all existing contacts in London. My first PR job was in the San Francisco office of a UK-based agency and I’ve maintained relationships with many former colleagues who have been fantastically helpful and generous with their tips on how to break onto the scene. I also began to explore the local professional organizations and attend their events. I need to tell no PR person about the utmost importance of networking, and also don’t need to tell them about how daunting it can be to walk into an event alone where one doesn’t know a soul after a long day of work and say “Hi! Can I join in here?” (It’s at these times I recall being the new kid at school in the US, having to ask to sit at the lunch table!) Beyond the PR events, I scoured Twitter for tips and hounded all my new contacts about what tech gatherings I should go to, and I continue to regularly squeeze my way into conversations with CEOs, VCs, journalists and other PRs.

It’s all paying off, though. I’m happily sharing the offices of a very friendly PR agency in Soho- a big improvement on the kitchen table- and am becoming a regular with the Silicon Roundabout crowd. There’s a lot of optimism about tech here at the moment, with the government putting money towards initiatives like Tech City. With my direct connection back to Silicon Valley thank to my years with Allison+Partners in San Francisco, I’ve turned up at just the right time. I can see this as the new biz train speeds along thanks to my new connections, and I’m lucky to be part of an agency that looks after clients from Dropbox to Mozilla, Best Western to eHarmony, with more than 100 practitioners with mountains of experience from tech to healthcare, public affairs to entertainment. I do believe that my inherent understanding of the subtle cultural differences between the UK and the US has been infinitely helpful as I navigate Allison+Partners through London, the UK, and increasingly, the EU. I’ll touch on that- and the many dips and turns I continue to experience along this journey- in an upcoming post.

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