Category Archives: PR

Our first digitally converged summer social: will you be there?

If you play a role in Oxfordshire’s interlinked and multi-platformed media ecosystem then  you’re invited to our summer social. Don’t let us down.

When? Thursday July 7th, 7.00-9.00pm

Where? North Wall Arts Centre, South Parade, Summertown, Oxford, OX2 7JN

Who? News reporters, photographers, documentary makers, press officers, comms workers – staff and freelances, print, broadcast and online, working for small outfits or global giants, serving hyperlocal or international audiences…

Why? Because news and information know no boundaries, because we all care about ethics, quality and professionalism, and getting a fair return for what we do, because you never know where you might find an opening to change job… and because all of the above are a good excuse to party

The social is being hosted by the BBC Oxford NUJ chapel, complete with free buffet and first drink and a bar. Continue reading


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Making journalism pay in the digital age – a networking event

Thursday July 3rd, 7,00pm, upstairs in the St Aldates Tavern,
Opposite Oxford Town Hall, St Aldates


An open networking event for journalists and would-be journalists working online and/or in broadcasting and print, as reporters, feature writers, photo/video-journalists, editors, PRs, designers, bloggers, front-end developers and more.


This is the second in our new-style branch meetings which aim to be more informal and inclusive, and follows a very successful June meeting where we piloted the new format.

Tim Dawson, chair of the NUJ’s Freelance Industrial Council, who writes regularly for a range of national newspapers and magazines including the Sunday Times, New Statesman and Times Education Supplement, blogs at and is co-publisher of, will present a short overview of some of the innovative ways journalists are using the internet and digital media to find new ways of working, and new ways to promote themselves and earn a living from what they do.

Steven Mathieson, a freelance member of the Oxford NUJ branch who has spent many years on the Guardian, specialising in information technology in healthcare and government, will talk about his experiences using the internet to reach a wider audience, build his profile, gather information, advertise his book CardDeclined, and crowdfund his reporting on the Ends of Britain via the Beacon journalism platform. He will set out why he thinks raising money from subscriptions is a more workable model than advertising for sustaining quality journalism.

We will also have contributions from Sonja Francis the editor of, who moved from a background in local newspapers to set up the web-based news service, as well as from members who started off on the web development side and are now looking to expand into creating content.

If you have experiences good or bad in using digital media to earn money from journalism – offering web-based services or using the internet to boost your profile, find new clients, network within your specialist area, gather information – please come to the meeting and share them. If you are looking for tips and advice on getting started, or maybe for opportunities to collaborate, then this is the place to be.

The meeting is open to all NUJ members, whatever media sector you work in.

If you are not a member but are interested in joining or learning more about the union and getting started in journalism, you can apply to attend the meeting by sending an email to subject line ˂making journalism pay˃


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Where are your red lines? Blurring the distinction between journalism and PR

A recent survey of 390 ‘science journalists’ – predominantly freelances, predominantly European – found that only around one-quarter of respondents earn their living entirely from independent journalism. The majority either supplement their earnings or earn the bulk of their income working in other capacities, either in research (33%) or for governments (10%), NGOs (22%), commercial companies (18%) or other interests.



The term ‘science journalists’ was used loosely to describe the sorts of journalists with some specialist knowledge who write not just about ‘academic’ topics but about contested issues of great public interest in the areas of health, climate change, genetics, energy, water and food supply and more.

So the finding that the majority of respondents who say they work in as independent journalists also do work for organisations that have an interest and agenda, presumably in the same (or closely related) field, raises worrying questions about how independent that coverage really is.

The survey was conducted online in advance of the World Conference of Science Journalists, which took place in Helsinki this June under the title “Critical Questioning in the Public Sphere”.

It aimed to explore to what extent the line between science journalism and PR is becoming blurred, as the crisis in the media has left large numbers of specialist reporters struggling to earn a freelance living writing from an independent perspective, and has left organisations active in specialists fields frustrated at the lack of media coverage of issues that they care about.

The problem of journalists wearing two hats is only one part of a complex picture. The survey also asked about other ways in which independent coverage may be being subverted as even staffers are finding, for instance, that tight restrictions of travel limits their ability to cover many important stories.

What would you do?

Survey participants were asked how they respond to a number of fairly common scenarios.

  • You took a trip with all expenses paid by a subject. Back home, you write a piece for a newspaper. Q: what would you do?
  • You are paid to write a story for a research organization. They hope you (also) offer the story to a newspaper for publication. Q: Would you do it?
  • You do freelance work for a research organization. A newspaper asks you to interview the organization’s new director. Q: Would you do it?
  • You are employee at a Newspaper. A research organization offers to pay you well for some freelance work on the side for their PR Magazine. Q: would you do that?
  • You visit a research organization’s press conference. Your press pack contains tickets for a popular concert. Q: What would you do?
  • A funding organization sponsors a series of newspaper stories. They determine the subjects and will get to “read” your stories before they are published. The editor is out of budget and agrees. Q: Would you do that?
  • You write for a newspaper about a particular field. A research organization in that same field asks you to freelance as a paid communications adviser. Q: Would you do that?

The responses to all these questions, along with the rest of the survey results, can be found at But the organisers also took the opportunity to invite science journalists attending the World Conference in Helsinki to participate in a parliamentary-style debate to try to tease out some of the ethical issues at stake, and identify where individual journalists draw their ethical “red lines”, and why.

Tricky issues

That many journalists worry about the fate of independent journalism in the current climate was clear from the very high attendance at this session. The sizeable room was barely able to accommodate the format of the debate, which involved people standing on either side of the room depending on the position they took on a given question, and trying to convince the people opposite to join them.

Noticeable was the smugness of the small minority of those present who worked entirely in PR or communications jobs. Accustomed to being looked down upon by “real” journalists, they at least never pretend to be more independent than they are. As for the “real” journalists, they were pretty much split on every question, not about what would be the ethical thing to do, but whether compromising on the ethics might be necessary not just for them to earn a living but for the certain stories to be told at all.

An all-expenses trip to San Antonio to hear the latest on some new wonderdrug could be an easy one to turn down. But what if you are one of three reporters offered travel and accommodation to report on illegal logging in Borneo, or a well-organised community initiative to help AIDS patients in the favelas of Sao Paolo that could offer a model for other countries? And if you do choose to go and do the report, will your readers/listeners/viewers dismiss it as biased propaganda if you then admit that the trip was financed by an NGO involved in the initiative?

If you are offered a commission to report on an important story for which your experience makes you uniquely equipped, would you turn it down because you occasionally do work on behalf of an organisation that could be seen to have an interest in the story?

Can you avoid blurring the line between PR and journalism so long as you keep the two types of work entirely separate in your own head, or is the blurring in the eye of the reader/viewer/listener?

As the organisers of the survey point out in their concluding remarks, journalists are increasingly confronting these sorts of questions and are having to decide where they draw their own red lines:

“Responses to the eight cases, general remarks by many respondents and lots of personal communication from private and public discussions all highlight the fact that science journalists are entering this new phase while playing by many different rules, most of which made up by and for themselves as they go along.”

Whether this trend will ultimately harm the credibility of science journalism and, by extension, the credibility of science itself among the general public, is up for debate they add, as is the question of what various actors in the profession could or should do to prevent that from happening.

What do you think? Where would you draw your own red lines? Could a good guiding principle be:“If you can’t justify your actions to a meeting of your local NUJ branch, then don’t do it”?

Press the comment button and share your views.


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Welcome to the world of PR

Many journalists rely heavily on press and public relations officers as a source of stories and to provide answers to their questions, organise interviews and provide comments –  but they don’t always appreciate what it takes to be an effective PR. In this guest blog post, branch member and PR professional Maurizio Fantato talks about his work, and the particular challenges of doing PR in the age of social networking.


ImageI currently work in agency PR, having transitioned from in-house PR and MarCom a couple of years ago. My specialism is also B2B PR, with a further focus on engineering, science and technology. This means that I seldom deal with urgent news (except in incidents or accidents) and also that most of the information I digest and process on behalf of my clients is highly factual. My clients are scientists or engineers and my journalists are also for the most part specialists in their own fields, so precision is of the essence. Nevertheless, the message needs to be engaging (and these days also highly visual) so one of our daily challenges is how we can extract true features and benefits in a concise and absorbing manner, bearing in mind that some of the stuff may also have to be condensed into microblogs (a form of blogging but based on short content like Twitter and Facebook updates). 

Occasionally we have to deal with a situation familiar to most PRs in which we are asked to produce ‘non-news’ releases. This is often the case in companies where personalities, instead of good marketing, rule. In the vast majority of these cases we are able to persuade a client that it would be against their own interest to do so, or simply apply other tactics to stall and avoid issuing such releases. However, recently my company was fired by a newly acquired client for not pandering to the wishes of their MD to publish such froth. When a month later the newly appointed PR agency managed to get that company in Private Eye under the ‘Desperate Marketing’ section, we felt vindicated.

The most difficult situations are those involving multiple approval processes across several organisations. You can guarantee that every PR and divisional manager will want to have a say and use a different angle. We have had instances of case studies having been delayed for a year or so while they were ‘under review’. Yes, not exactly the sort of cutting edge stuff that hits a newsdesk… more like the gestation of your classic academic paper!

But aside from any misunderstanding between PR and journalism, we want to work to the best of our abilities to enlighten and instruct our audiences, providing them with good sources of useful and newsworthy information. There are of course rogues in any profession.

 In the world of PR, just as in journalism, our main challenge these days is the advent of digital communication. With technical media being increasingly published online, backed up by social media presence and our own clients’ social media channels, there is an awful lot of noise out there. So our job is made a little more complex as we need to spend a lot longer listening, evaluating, pushing and of course reporting too. And these days reports go way beyond basic stuff like Advertising Value Equivalent (AVE) as well as entailing other metrics like Audience Engagements and more. Not that all this huge amount of data replaces the old common sense approach and an innate instinct for news… but it just makes our job easier when we have to persuade financial director on how they should spend their money.  Welcome to the world of PR.

More posts on PR and marketing topics, as well as other interests, can be found on Maurizio Fantato’s own blog at


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Hospital Manager, Hear Thyself: Life as a PR in the NHS


Alan Taman

The scandal of the Mid Staffs NHS Trust is prompting local and national media to take a more critical look at what is going on in hospitals across the country. NHS managers, meanwhile, are thinking about how to prevent the many problems and shortcomings that they are well aware of being picked up and used unfairly by what many of them see as ill-informed reporters who are looking for a story and don’t understand the pressures and challenges they face. Caught in the middle are the NHS press officers.  Alan Taman was one of them. A former member of the Oxford branch, now vice-chair of the Birmingham and Coventry branch, Alan worked for nine years as a senior PR at the Birmingham Children’s hospital, leaving the job two years ago to take up an MA in health journalism. Here he writes about the challenges of the job, and how support and advice from the NUJ helped him to resist pressure and stand by his principles.

I got on well with hospital consultants. As soon as they saw I wasn’t about to reduce their work to platitudes or risk exposes by blurting out confidential information, we got along fine. Managers, though. Well, there’s a different tribe…

I loved being a PR in the NHS. Usually. Probably because I worked in a children’s hospital and everyone wants to say nice things. Even when what has happened isn’t very nice. Reporters would do their best to cite our response, even when it was badly written, ‘managementese’ cobblers.

I’d do my best for them. Including trying to re-cast said tosh so they could at least use it. Health professionals as a group would go along with that. They saw the need. As would (most) managers. But occasionally there would be a story which raised the possibility of one of the true, great engines of the NHS: blame. The NHS runs on the stuff, it is a blame culture. That means managers can feel vulnerable about the possibility of blame from parties they barely understand and cannot control. For which they regard the media as the prime example.

This places hospital PRs in a unique version of the vice every PR has to live with. On the one hand, the pressure from journalists – many of whom are not health specialists (and that’s another gripe) and are struggling to understand so they can write for their equally non-specialist readers. That I found easy. It’s an act of translation and negotiation. Negotiating with health experts and reassuring them they won’t be mauled by the press. Translating what they say into terms the reporter can use if they can’t fully appreciate it for themselves. The happy health message goes out. Nearly all of my job was just that, spreading the good news about happy people achieving happy and often near-miraculous results. Time pressures from reporters were constant but I never found them too much.

BUT then there’s the other jaw of the vice. Expectations and impositions of managers. Most were fine, most of the time. Which allowed me to build up trust with them about trusting my colleagues and I to do the best for them with the media. Occasionally though, there would be a manager who was at best misinformed about the press, at worst downright hostile. That can be a nightmare. Made worse by the fact that a lot of NHS managers do not understand what it takes to be effective as a PR, and try to impose the same systems of control that apply, say, to running a surgery ward. Which completely misses the point on how the media and the NHS connect, and your responsibility as a PR to recognise that and manage it professionally.

The only recourse you have then is to ‘speak truth to power’: you have to say it as you think it is, not how you know they want to hear it. Ultimately they can still tell you to put out the line, but if you’ve registered objections on professional grounds and in writing at least they know it’s still going to be their neck. Thankfully I never had to push things that far. But I was willing to.

Most NHS PRs, I found, were professionals – many ex-reporters – who were doing their best to be honest and balance promotion and protection, sometimes in situations where managers were interpreting that professionalism as ‘disloyalty’. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few caved in and lied. But the NHS is the worse for that: something most NHS PRs are only too ready to agree with. The NUJ helped me both in feeling not so isolated when management were pressing (PRs often work alone and rarely are there more than a handful in any one Trust), and in offering very good advice so I could confidently press back if I needed to.


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