BellPress – ‘There are some great opportunities ahead’

Rupert Cornford from Story Publishing speaks to Alex Bell from BellPress about journalism, PR, and how the media is evolving

Alex, what are you going to bring to BellPress, from your experiences in journalism and PR? 

It’s a combination of both. If you bring the skills together and allow them to bounce off each other, you can use them really well. I know some journalists who have moved into PR and really struggled with contacting editors to get a story placed. I can understand that, but you have got to swallow your pride, straight away. It’s a real privilege to represent a company and engage with the media on their behalf.

How did you find the transition?

I was proud to work for a newspaper and it did hurt to leave. But you soon get over yourself and move on. I joined an agency in Manchester and really took to it. I enjoyed the networking side, I enjoyed the process of winning clients, and applying my listening and writing skills. I started as head of media and became the chief operating officer when we developed more work in London. That put me in a good position to do what I am doing now.

The testimonials on your website show an ability to listen deeply and translate ideas. Perhaps there is a certain skillset that bridges PR and journalism…

I think you hit on it there with listening. In journalism, I had so many experiences where people clearly weren’t listening; and were too quick to put their view across, just to be heard. I had those experiences in the PR world, too. It gets to me. People should wait their turn and not speak unless they have got something productive to say, or they have a good question. When you are representing a company, you give yourself the best chance if you listen to what is going on, and meet as many people employed by them as possible.

There still seems to be a division between PR and journalism. What do you think is happening?

I recently finished a diploma with the PRCA (Public Relations and Communications Association), and I had to write an essay about how journalists and the PR industry work together. Looking at the data and statistics, there is a threat to democracy if there are too many PR people, and not enough journalists. Journalism is sacred when it’s balanced and well researched; without good journalists, and I don’t think they get the credit they deserve at times, where would we be? But you can have a prejudice about something you don’t even know about and that’s how some journalists view PR. It’s odd, when you think about it, and it’s nonsense really.

I’m interested to ask you about the role of the media and how it’s changing, if it is…

When I grew up, my dad always had a newspaper. I would read it, enjoy talking to him about it, and his views on the world. It’s something I always thought about, especially when I gained a qualification to become a journalist, and during the ten years I worked in the profession. It was an interesting time, but it was also a time with multiple rounds of redundancies taking place. Luckily, I didn’t succumb to that, but journalism is a tough industry. There is a huge fight for publishers to keep coming up with new ideas. I’ve got a lot of admiration for the people involved, because the more publications there are, the better chance people have of telling their story.

I know you have looked into The Washington Post as an example of how the media has evolved. What have you learned from this?

The Washington Post was a family-owned newspaper for many years. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, acquired the title in 2013. The family didn’t want to sell up, but they were fighting against tides they couldn’t control. They were putting a lot of investment in, but they weren’t getting where they wanted to be. It took a billionaire to buy one of the best-known newspapers in the world. He focused on hiring technologists to come up with platforms to build the subscriber base. They also hired some of the best news storytellers in the world. It doesn’t have to be a billionaire, but the key is investing in the right areas; they cared about creating a solid business model.

How do you think the media will evolve in the future?

I know what I want to happen. I want regional magazines and newspapers, and the trade media, to be as strong as possible. With the likes of Tortoise Media and Delayed Gratification looking back on things in a considered way, for example, the times are beginning to change. The 24/7 news cycle is just bonkers, and we all get sucked into it, so the way people want to consume information is slowly starting to become more considered. I hope that continues. There needs to be a healthy balance of both, but the models have to be right.

How do you think businesses can best contribute to the media?

If you are working with a company, you want to present a number of different options of how to communicate a story to their target media. Be honest about each option, explain which one is likely to get the coverage it deserves and why. Even if something goes on the company’s website, with some audio and video as well, then at least it is being communicated to customers – not everything has to go out to the press. There is also the risk factor. Once you put something out, even if it’s a few words on a social media post, your reputation is there to be judged. The best PR people are concise, they listen, present firm advice and can write well.

How can businesses follow the trends in the media, such as data journalism, for example?

There are some great opportunities for companies to collaborate more. There is a phenomenal data unit at Reach plc, my former employer. We all know there are some brilliant, forward thinking companies, which are specialists when it comes to having data as well. I also think there is an important point to make about people. My favourite stories are those about people who are leading their organisations. I can understand why some people don’t want to put their heads above the parapet, but I’d like to see people revealing more about themselves in an authentic way. People buy from people, and in the business press, you can see a lack of personality driven pieces at times.

What kinds of things are you going to be focused on at BellPress?

I’m really excited to get out there. I’m particularly excited to be working with startups and helping them communicate with potential customers and investors, perhaps even with one-off press releases, for example. I have formed a partnership with TiE UK North, the entrepreneurial network. Vikas Shah from Swiscot Group is the outgoing president and Ann Jordan is an executive director; she is someone I have known for a long time and is very wise. That partnership will hopefully allow me to engage with young businesses, the people behind them and their ideas. Startups are the engine of the economy and we are going to need solid and innovative ideas, and employment, during and after this crisis.

“Rupert is a journalist I’ve long admired, particularly his ability to write long form content and his skills as an interviewer. When I was setting up my consultancy, Story Publishing was high on my agenda, as I had a very good idea the team would deliver the content I was looking to create. Story Publishing approached the task in a relaxed manner, listened and provided fresh ideas and solutions to potential problems. I believe we will work together in the future.”

Alex Bell, director, BellPress