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Charles on… anything that comes along

Wednesday 6 June 2007

Filed under: — Charles @ 11:59 am

Die, PR, die, or raise your game and learn about asynchronicity

Welcome people coming here via The Crapps! Perhaps you might like to read my brand-new post on this topic, “Live, PR, live in the 21st century“. Or not. OK, on you go.
Scene: the Guardian office. A typical day.

Phone rings (luckily for me, a colleague takes the call).

PR: “Hello, you blog, don’t you? Do you want to write about our new brand?”
Gdn: (confused) “Your new brand?”
PR: “Yes, it’s London 2012, the Olympics, the new brand has been unveiled today.”
Gdn: “Do you mean logo?” (This would be the logo (described by John Gruber - and everyone else including me - as “one of the worst marks Iíve ever seen. Itís just plain ugly”).

When the people touting your stuff don’t know the difference between a logo and a brand (hint: one can be included in your accounts under “intangibles” and have a value reaching into the millions; the other just costs that way), you’ve got a problem.

Later: phone rings. My phone. It’s been passed on by a colleague who works on blogs.
PR: “Hello, do you blog?”
Me: “Er, yes.” (Thinks: among other things.. what an odd way to open the conversation.)
PR: “I’m calling from Panasonic because they’ve got a new camera that’s come out and we thought you’d like to write about it.”
Me: “So what’s different about it? Cameras come out all the time.”
PR: “I don’t know exactly, but you’re a blogger aren’t you? Would you like to write about it?”
Me: (feeling slight stroke coming on): “Why? What’s this blog stuff? What is it about the camera? What’s special, different, newsworthy, if anything, about it?”
PR: “Umm, well, that’s not what I’m doing but I thought that because you blog…”
Me: “I edit the Technology section of the Guardian. Google me. Goodbye.”

End of conversation. Yes, it was Panasonic, and I am naming and shaming here because this was simply shameful. If you’re going to ring up a national newspaper - bearing in mind that there aren’t that many of them - then you’d better have your act together. I don’t ring people up at random when I’m researching stories. And if I wasn’t sure what I was trying to find out, then I’d lay my cards on the table in the hope the person might be able to help. But I’d have searched for the right person first. This person just seemed to think that use the words “blog”, “new” and “camera” in the same sentence would induce some sort of Pavlovian response in me. Uh-uh. Ain’t going to happen.

And the next day.
PR: “We sent you an email last Wednesday…”
Me: “I got it. I’m not doing anything with it. Someone called me about it yesterday. If I spent my time responding to every email from PR people I’d get less than nothing done.”

End of conversation.

And later:
PR: “Hello, I’m calling from Vodafone, it’s about the mobile internet demonstration we’ll be having..”
Me: “Someone called me about this earlier and I told them that I’m not going to be around.”

End of conversation.

And later still:

PR: “Hi, I was calling to say that there’s now a Mac client available for LogMeIn and wondered if you’d like to talk to…”
Me: “I know. I’ve been swapping emails with the PR person there for weeks. Go and have a word with him.”

End of conversation.

Seriously: the beginning of this week was absolutely the worst couple of days I can recall for quite a while in terms of PR folk ringing me up and (a) not having a clue or (b) not being coordinated or (c) thinking that because they sent an email, no matter how crapulous or mis-aimed, that it’s my responsibility to have answered in good time as though they were a debt collector or something.

Here’s the reality, which hasn’t changed in a long time and isn’t going to change in the future unless there’s a dramatic turnaround in what I do: PR, and particularly business-to-business PR, provides only the very tiniest input into my work. Like, a fraction of a percent.

But when it comes to calls like these… PR has to raise its game. It’s just dire. I’m on IM. I’m on email. I’m on all sorts of asynchronous communication systems, whose advantage is that I can dip in and out of using them. (An IM conversation doesn’t have to be linear like a phone conversation.) Want to get in touch? Choose a method. (Though I’ll admit that seasons go by and I don’t log into Skype. Too processor-intensive.)

But if you want to talk to me on the phone then generally you do need a good reason that goes beyond something you can explain in an email, and you need good preparation, because phones demand that you concentrate on them pretty much exclusively, at that moment (they’re synchronous, see, rather than asynchronous like email or IM). There are all sorts of other things that I could be doing while in the office: editing stories, researching stories, fact-checking, looking at potential pictures, discussing layouts, discussing headlines, discussing adverts, discussing budgets, commissioning more work from writers, and that’s before I move from my seat.

And I do get impatient with people who don’t have a clue about the story they’re pitching. Sorry, but I do. PR is about conversation, but if you start the conversation by saying something that indicates you have no idea about the subject in hand then it’s like saying “Ooh, what a nice dog” and pointing to someone’s cat. They will treat you accordingly.

Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s the swarm of ever-more-desperate people trying to pitch stories about which they either have no clue, or know are dead in the water but are putting themselves through the pain of pitching in order to bill the client. But in a world where we’re turning out ever more meeja studies students, it would help to have some clue about how the minds in the media work. We feed on information, If you haven’t got it, we’ll bite your heads off just to check there isn’t any lurking down there.

Update: hmm, this has stirred people up over at The World’s Leading, where it seems some (at least) are “sick of my attitude” and wonder “what kind of stories he’d have or access to high-level execs he’d enjoy WITHOUT PR.” Interesting question. Though just to reiterate, I’m pointing here to really bad practice. Trouble is, it’s too common (or not uncommon enough). Good PR is excellent stuff, even excellent, at seeing an opportunity to get the right people together. Bad PR is just - well, it’s bad.

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