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The Transatlantic Experience

Differences in the media require a different communication approach in the US, argues Portland’s Managing Director, Tim Allan

With our New York office now over a year old and growing strongly after significant client wins, it is a good time to reflect on the differences and similarities in the media and communications environment on either side of the Atlantic. Many of our clients have a large international remit so we are no strangers to communicating to global audiences, especially global policy makers, on their behalf. But having a New York office has fully brought to life the different approaches required.

Here George Bernard Shaw’s quote that “England and America are two countries divided by a common language” seems particularly relevant to our industry that makes its money out of using language effectively. Yet it is not just a different language setting on Microsoft Word, and a jauntier style of press release writing that is required to operate successfully in New York. There are much more fundamental differences which affect our work.

So what are they and what lessons can we pass on to UK communicators needing to address the US media market? Most obviously, the newspaper market seems much less crowded to anybody used to ten or so national newspapers thumping on to the office mat every morning.

Although many of the papers like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post are effectively national titles, there does not seem nearly the same level of cut throat competition between them. Many have traditionally enjoyed local monopolies or clear dominance of their market sector. Despite the decreasing circulation and advertising revenues brought on by new technology and recession, papers like the New York Times still enjoy a status and preeminence that can only be envied by their broadsheet counterparts in the UK.

Of course, the Wall Street Journal’s full frontal assault on The New York Times’s readership is shaking things up a bit – with Andy Coulson caught in the crossfire. But I think it is still fair to say that the fragmentation of media audiences brought on by the internet has come as a bigger shock for US newspapers than to UK newspapers more used to having a small share of a savagely competitive market.

The historic lack of competition has meant that the status of journalists on such papers is very high. Everybody is targeting a small number of journalists and the threshold for getting stories in the paper is definitely higher than in the UK.

There is also a marked difference in the sense of mission among US journalists. Although they are commercial organizations, newspapers see themselves much more as a key part of the fabric of society, with a paternalistic role of informing and educating the population. “All the news that is fit to print” is still the slogan of the New York Times. While many, like me, can be irritated by such a patronizing and elitist positioning, the need for a newspaper to take time to write accurately and informatively and to edit out the inane and scurrilous is very well ingrained.

This is both good and bad. The New York Times recently devoted its magazine to the issue of technology in education. The lengthy pieces were incredibly well researched and informative. But I very much doubt whether the vast majority of their readers ever finished reading them. It is hard to see such pieces being repeated in the UK.

Indeed, Wall Street Journal journalists have grumbled to me about the new ‘British’ style of writing a greater number of shorter stories which the new management of the paper under Robert Thompson, formerly editor of The Times has brought in. They feel that something is lost if long analytical pieces are no longer making the cut. They are probably right that their media is richer for this approach.

On the other hand, such long pieces can be painfully worthy and dull and fail to reflect the reality of how people consume media these days. What is missing in many US papers is the sense of irreverent humour and mischievousness that runs through many UK newspapers to lighten the load.

What about the differences in PR approaches? Portland has been competing for business and serving clients over the last year in New York and employing both UK and US communication experts.  I have noticed that in some respects British PR approaches are much more developed and in some senses much less.

It is clear, for example, that British PR people are better at being Defence Against the Dark Arts teachers, because they have tended to have more practice at it. Probably because of the more hostile and competitive nature of the UK press, we assume that journalists are going to come with a negative attitude and an agenda. Our media training sessions reflect this suspicion and clients have been grateful for the preparation.

On the other hand the concept of message distillation and development comes more naturally to US professionals, and not just those who make a living out of PR. Executives at all levels think more about their core messages and about how their complicated work can be communicated in simple, compelling terms.

Just as the rise of modern marketing techniques to centre stage in many businesses in the 1970s and 1980s came naturally to US firms but had to be learnt by more reticent British companies, so effective PR is more ingrained in US corporations. When Portland holds messaging workshops in the US, participants are more quickly engaged and willing to debate. That keeps us firmly on our toes.

Communication, as we all know, is now global. Contrary to Shaw’s jaundiced view, there is now much more that unites rather than divides communication approaches in the US and UK. But the nuances and differences of approach are important. Portland has developed its business to be able to offer high quality advice to clients based on local expertise in London and New York, and we look forward to serving clients on each side of the Pond.

Tim Allan is the Managing Director of Portland and currently divides his time between New York and London.