John Stonborough: From investigative journalism to PR

Media relations giant John Stonborough, managing director of Stonborough Media Group, spoke about how the skills he  gained as an investigative journalist have made him one of the most notorious names in PR at an industry event last Thursday.

Stonborough spoke about his transition to PR from journalism, explaining that his final film about Shell as an investigative reporter was ‘a little bit like shooting fish in a barrel’, as at the time the corporation fell into every trap he set and made it easy for him to ‘shaft’ them, he said.

He went on to set up a consultancy to offer PR advice to big brands (including Shell, his first client), to ensure they work ‘within the rules’ and customers are fairly treated, he said.

His talk, entitled ‘Blocking investigation or ensuring truth for clients?’, addressed the unpopularity of PRs with journalists and the impact of current regulatory structures on investigative journalism: “There is a presumption that you guys [journalists] are right and obviously the sorts of people I represent are wrong and that isn’t always the case; sometimes, and I hate to say this, but sometimes your wrong and you do not act ethically.”

Stonborough was the media adviser to former House of Commons speaker Michael Martin and spoke about how early assertions over MPs’ expenses turned into one of the biggest political scandals of the decade: “We all knew it was going to be a nightmare, but no one ever realised quite the degree to which it would explode.

“I certainly didn’t gain any great pleasure out of being able to say I told you so afterwards (…) the truth of it, he just wasn’t up to the job.”

Originally a policeman turned investigative journalist, Stonborough worked for the Daily Mail, BBC Radio 4, Thames Television and Channel 4. He also spent three years as a researcher for Roger Cook, and lamented what he saw as a lack of programming such as Panorama and World in Action: “There isn’t any hostile media; one of the big issues in this country is where the investigators are now.”

“All I’m doing is fishing on the other side of the same pond,” explained Stonborough, referring to his move from journalism to PR and expressing his fondness for the other side of the press fence:

“I’m still dealing with the same people, I’m still dealing with the same issues, I understand the problems of programme makers,” he said.

For the students in the audience Stonborough stressed persistence and hard work as necessary skills: “Be a complete pain in the arse and the first person to be a pain in the arse to is your prospective editor.”

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