Death of the press trip?

Ah, the press trip, the jolly, the junket. It’s been a staple of the public relations industry’s past, but are big changes ahead for this institution?

I’ve always worked in relatively isolated places (the Channel Islands) or with relatively isolated places (nowadays a mix of developed and developing markets), so press trips have been a useful tool in getting to meet key journalists and letting them experience the location they are writing about.

For the travel writers we used to entertain at Jersey War Tunnels (usually set up by the excellent team at Jersey Tourism) it was really important of course that they saw the island and walked through the tunnels hewn out of granite by slave workers during the German Occupation.

We also organised press trips for financial journalists. Arguably, they could have interviewed the CEO of a major bank by telephone (and sometimes did), but to understand ‘offshore’ culture it really did help to visit the island and meet in situ the people working in different departments.

There's a bank around here somewhere...

Defenders of press trips will often trot out examples like those above. For us it is a serious relationship-building exercise which is an important way to build trust and understanding with an important group of stakeholders. More cynical ¬†voices will argue that many press trips are simply about wining, dining and seeking more favourable coverage in return (note, I’m not saying they are wrong).

Many editors seem convinced that the press trip falls predominantly in the latter category. Which is an increasing problem. Earlier this year the UK Bribery Act was introduced. It includes strong provisions to dissuade people from accepting entertainment from a supplier which could influence commercial decisions.

But the¬†Bribery Act is not the only brake on journalists accepting trips. The media industry’s economics have changed too and fewer full time editorial staff means that absences are harder to justify. As one journalist suggested to me, editors have a real quandary. Send a journalist away for four days and they may well file several stories on one company which the editor feels they have to use because it is the only output from the staffer during that period. But if the editor does use all the copy then it’s possible that the company organising the trip will get much more publicity than they would have done over the same period under normal circumstances. Unless it is a major brand like Google, Apple or HSBC, that’s hard to justify too.

A number of national media now have explicit rules banning journalists from attending press trips under normal circumstances. A few do allow their staff to go, but only if the trip is taken as leave. Editors are also likely to refuse copy from freelancers if drawn from a press trip, lest that also be seen as a breach of the rules.

That is not to say that the press trip is finished. If a trip is justified i.e. there is a good reason that the story cannot be done by phone – then journalists are still going to attend (possibly paid for by their employer, reinforcing the need for there to be a really good news hook).

A journalist sent me a great list of things to consider when organising a successful modern press trip, which I wanted to share here:

  • Try hosting an event at, or adjacent to, an existing industry conference
  • Partner with the government, or an inward investment agency, getting them to sponsor the trip
  • Host journalists at an analyst event
  • Host journalists at an event open to the public, like a user conference
  • Give a single journalist exclusivity (and a chance to meet your CEO)
  • Partner with other businesses to offer journalists the broadest possible menu for the visit

So, it may well be goodbye to the junket, but, to be honest, good riddance. As both journalism and PR seek higher ethical standards it is absolutely right that their interactions are brought under greater scrutiny. A good story will always attract interest. We’ll just have to get drunk together in our own time.

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