In the midst of a week off explicitly not doing anything with email – actually, while waiting for a tap to unfreeze so I could fill a bucket with some water – I got to thinking about what the relationship is between PR people and journalists.

I got to wondering: what would I tell people in PR given a moment? I thought I’d ask: why is it that if you’re in this valuable business that you hire people who don’t know what they’re doing, and so ring up journalists when they’re busy, and ask them dumb questions – like “did you get my email?”

I thought: it simply can’t be the case that PR companies hire simpletons. That’s just not how it is. Yet everywhere you find journalists complaining about how rubbish PRs are – that they don’t give the journalist what they want, they don’t know anything (that the journalist wants to find out). It’s a carpet-bombing of know-nothingness. That doesn’t make sense, because you know that the people who are doing this job – picking up the phones to call the journalists – aren’t stupid, and don’t perceive themselves as such either.

Given that, why doesn’t PR work better for journalists? And then I thought: well, who pays the PRs?

It sure as hell isn’t the journalists. Quite the opposite: some of them live for the food and drink they get from PRs.

So who does pay the PRs? The clients. The clients, the clients, the clients. It’s them who pays the PRs. So you should examine how PR works always in the light of that. (This isn’t going to be much news to many PR people, but some journalists might find it enlightening.)

So: clients hire PRs to get the clients’ message out there. The PRs’ job is to get the journalists to manufacture that stuff (call it “coverage”) that the clients can be persuaded to believe is their message “out there”. That’s it. Maybe it doesn’t involve journalists some of the time, but of course we’re talking about the journalist side here.

From that, it all becomes clearer. Why don’t PRs understand journalists better? Because the people they really need to understand are their customers – the ones who pay their bill – the clients. The journalists, the people who cost them money, aren’t as important.

Imagine PR as a set of car manufacturers. (Perhaps the analogy is apt.) The clients are the customers, kicking the tyres, trying to decide which one (which PR company) to buy (hire).

And the journalists and newspapers and other media? They’re suppliers – you know, like the little companies that make windscreen-wiper blades, pistons, engine blocks, whatever. Think of how reliant so many media are on PR: just like the little suppliers that rely on General Motors/Vauxhall, Chrysler, Ford.

Of course, the analogy breaks down somewhat: some companies have their own internal PR, but it’s the same process: those people have to please people higher up in their own company, and journalists are still relied on to manufacture that satisfaction.

It’s so exactly like car manufacturers and suppliers that the surprising thing is that this meme isn’t everywhere. Both are reliant on the other: the manufacturers feel the pain if suppliers, for whatever reason, fail. The suppliers are driven mad if manufacturers deny them business. (Sound familiar?)

So if you wonder, as a journalist, why it is that you get people who seem to have no idea what you do or why you even exist, but do seem to think it’s terribly important that you received some email or other, think of it like this: you’re the company that makes wing mirrors, and the car manufacturer wants to make sure you received its order that it sent the other day.

The fact that the order was for 5,000 rear-view mirrors – well, that’s just how the world is sometimes.

Update: this would have to be the companion piece, from a PR point of view, with its five-point advice to journalists. The scary part?

Charles’s post was the first time I have ever seen a  journalist acknowledge the fact that we are advocates for our clients and paymasters.

For a profession that is meant to be about figuring stuff out, we journos can be slow on the uptake sometimes.