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.
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 8:14 am
I’m a reader of your stuff and a fan.
But no. Not this one.
I am frequently stunned at how little journalists understand PR companies and what they do. And I’m sure your first reaction to that statement is a slightly annoyed ‘And why the hell should I?’, which really points us back to the problem. Because you see PRs as people pushing product that you don’t want at you, you naturally assume their work to be defined by that relationship. That this is all PR people do. And that is not (well, let’s agree on should not) be the case.
A sound public relations company will provide counsel to its clients, from defining the organisation’s communications strategy, positioning and how it enunciates its messages to a wide range of target audiences through to honing internal communication processes and building communications assets ranging from the organisation’s ‘About us’ website statement right down to Q&As and other resources for media use. It will consult, recommend and implement programmes using a wide range of tools, including, but by no means limited to, media relations.
Just because, as a journalist, you are getting releases and dumb-ass calls (I will apologise for my industry here: it’s a practice I abhor and does tend to point to agencies taking a subservient role with clients and acting as their delivery boys. This is not the part of the industry I like to think I inhabit) from PRs, does not mean that the nature of PRs and their relationships with, and value to, clients can be defined by that activity.
And so, with that in mind, the car parts analogy doesn’t work for me I’m afraid.
I’ve also heard PRs defined as ‘pizza delivery boys’ and that came with a warning that we might deliver pizza, but we shouldn’t arrogate ourselves to thinking that we could cook pizza. Similarly, that piece of thinking was way off-kilter. I help companies to define what pizzas people want, how best to structure the pizza offering, how to cook the right pizzas (and put in place processes to ensure we understand which pizzas are popular and which pizzas aren’t) make sure that everyone that wants pizza has access to it and then, yes, to deliver the right pizzas, on time, to the right customers.
Just because you only see the delivery guy doesn’t mean to say we’re not working higher up the food chain.
Now if he’s brought entirely the wrong pizza, it’s cold (and you didn’t even order from that chain) and he’s aggressively telling you that it’s your pizza now, buddy, and you’d better take it, I say shoot the bastard.
But we’re not all like that. And it certainly does not define what a good agency does for its clients – and neither does the wing mirror delivery analogy.
A good agency’s value to its clients is not in getting journalists to run press releases. And that is not only true, but increasingly the case as direct communications plays a greater and greater role in communications and marketing.
There. I feel better and you will feel completely confused by the unstructured ramble above. And that’s why you’re a journalist and I’m a PR. I can’t communicate terribly well…
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 9:56 am
Excellent post Charles and it’s always an education to read what journalists think about the PR industry. If more journalists wrote like this then eventually the ‘dead leg’ of the PR industry would pick it up and learn, but until journalists explain why they slam the phone down and PR’s become more concerned with building healthy relationships, it’ll remain the same.
It’s funny how the car/media analogy crops up so often, I wrote about pitching to a journalist can be like pulling a handbrake turn (a little tongue in cheek, but I think the ideology is sound).
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 9:57 am
That’s a really interesting way of looking at it. Having done my time in various PR agencies I think the other problem is that the brighter people understand how much journalists dislike the ‘did you get my email’ call that clients demand, so they delegate the job to more junior people who don’t have a choice.
The result: PRs get a bad reputation with journalists, agency media results get worse, and clients push the cost down. Which in turn means the agency isn’t being paid enough to justify even the most junior team member to research properly the deadlines and requirements of the 500 or so journalists (not uncommon) he or she has been tasked with ‘following up’.
It’s a problem that could be solved by putting an agency’s best, not most junior, people in charge of pitching to a more targeted list of journalists. In the long-term, results would be better and clients would pay more to cover the cost.
Of course, some agencies already do this – but it’s definitely not the norm.
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 10:22 am
What most of us know is that our ability to do our job well, and generate meaningful results for our clients, depends on quality interaction with journalists. As you know, I can’t stand it when we get a kicking from the media community because of a perceived lack of knowledge, poorly targeted and sometimes irrelevant pitching – conducted ‘because that’s what the client wants’. Luckily there’s more and more of us that are prepared to disagree in order to protect really valuable relationships with the media. As Kate says, it still mystifies me why agencies don’t put their best people (normally the most experienced) on the phones more often and that’s where the problem lies – for sure.
To continue the analogy, a good car manufacturer knows that the quality of its cars depends on the craftsmanship of its suppliers – upset your suppliers and the wheels come off.
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 10:46 am
Very interesting take and entertaining post Charles.
And yes, sometimes you have a story to sell and you’ve got to give it all you’ve got (although did you get my email and calling people for whom it is not relevant is inexcusable)
Following the money isn’t always the answer though….in an agency you have numerous clients including thems that pay the fees, your bosses but also your external audiences so media, analysts, bloggers etc are essentially clients too.
I blame crap training on the whole and a general undervaluing the important of good relationships.
Senior people in agencies often can’t pass off the media relations role quick enough to junior folks and old processes for media relations aren’t updated to accomodate new tools (and I am not advocating calling you to see if you got my Tweet either).
If building media relationships is the heart of what we do, it should be guarded, valued and taught properly by senior agency folks…..just like the job of head of quality control at Porsche wouldn’t be given to a 21 year old with 6 months experience.
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 10:49 am
You hit the nail on the head. Far too much is said and written on this subject.
Back in the 1980s I worked for a great tech PR agency, the culture was: ‘if we treat the press as our customers, then our customers get coverage and pay their bills.’ It’s that simple.
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 11:16 am
That’s interesting Charles. Perhaps it’s because my colleagues are all former insiders (national journos and in-house folk)but as a battle scarred veteran, I’ve always assumed that there are two customers, really – the client and the journalist. How else can you stand any chance of decent professional relationship with either party? I think the trouble is that too many PRs see this as a transactional game, a bit like a somewhat more benign version of WW1 trench warfare – lob a press release over the top and hope for the best. That’s where the rot sets in. It really behoves the PR to ask him/herself before they call or email (a) what’s genuinely interesting about this and (b) is Charles (or other individual) likely to be interested in this. Getting the second part right isn’t always easy, but the first ought to be mandatory.
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 11:33 am
Good post Charles and interesting analogy. Many PRs are just plain lazy and don’t read newspapers regularly or engage with journalists on any other platforms apart from email. The truth is you get good manufacturers and bad manufacturers you only have to look at the car industry for that. I just hope Jed and I stay in the good category and to do that you need to keep reading and stay engaged.
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 11:38 am
Many of us in PR wonder why otherwise seemingly intelligent people feel the need to make those pointless “have you seen my press release” calls like an outbound call centre on steroids.
And it is too easy to blame the clients – if they are misguided enough to ask you to do it, then you should be strong enough to tell them why it is a bad idea.
The best PRs know their industry and/or their company inside out. They can provide guidance on issues and deliver relevant spokespeople at the right time.
They don’t need to make any “did you get that” calls because they know that the media they deal with will come back to them if it is interesting to them.
You know who these PRs are already – that’s why you take their calls and answer their emails.
To continue your analogy, the problem is that there are so many car manufacturers out there now. Meanwhile you, because your production is limited, have chosen to specialise. Which means the only wing mirrors you make are for a Bentley. So there’s really not much point throwing an order at you for a Volvo Truck. But people do, and believe me, it annoys the other good car manufacturers just as much as it annoys you, because it simply clogs up the system and makes it worse for us all.
An editor friend of mine had another view from your side of the fence recently. He’s in the happy position of recruiting at the moment. He told me it would be easy to recruit a reporter, but he was finding it much more difficult to hire a good journalist.
Thanks for the post – I’ll link to it and comment on it from the pr voice blog that I write as President of the CIPR (link above).
Kevin Taylor, CCgroup
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 12:02 pm
I’ve read your post three times now, desperately trying to find the vitriol that you have tended to reserve for the PR industry in the past. I’ve even read sentences backwards in the hope of them saying “PR IS THE DEVIL”, but to no avail. Could this be the beginning of a beautiful friendship with PR?
When I was a journalist, I hated PR people. Bow-tie-wearing charlatans, I thought, who seemed to stand around at press conferences looking very sharp, but not seeming to add much to the party.
Since becoming one of them a number of years ago, I have recognised various things, but in particular a. how hard good PR people work and b. the pressure they’re under to satisfy clients’ aspirations for media coverage. It can be very tricky, as not everything a client believes is news is, actually, news. That’s no news to you, or to those in PR tasked with picking up the phone to journalists every day. The PR people most experienced at dealing with the media are often at a point in their career when they have other demands on their plate, such as finding new clients and developing more junior people. It’s a fantasy to think that they will necessarily be the ones selling in stories. The hope is that the mentoring of newer people in the industry is good enough to mean journalists don’t get a “did you get my email?” call; rather the story has been rigorously questioned up front to ensure it lives or dies on its own merit, not because a PR person is on their knees, begging.
The advent of social media offers an interesting change (ok, potential change) in the way PR and journalism co-habits. I posted about it here: http://pr-media-blog.co.uk/can-pr-behave-itself-on-social-media/ where I chose to refer to you, Charles, as “almost cuddly”. After reading your post, I think that almost stands up.
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 12:44 pm
Thanks for a thought-provoking perspective. Proper training for PR execs before they’re let loose on a phone is a must. But I do think many PR bosses shoulder a lot of the blame for the situation. It’s a constant source of fascination to me that they still make ridiculous overpromises to clients, ‘guaranteeing’ x amount of coverage for any given story – even if it’s patently of interest to nobody but the client. You then get poor, red-faced execs sweating to pull in the hits however they can, even if it means doggedly bugging the hell out of you guys. It would be nice to see a lot more honesty across client/agency relationships – and a healthy dose of realism.
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 12:56 pm
Good piece! From the client side, I was always frustrated by how many people in PR envied/despised journalists in equal measure but never really understood what journalism is. Your analogy is insightful, although maybe it doesn’t catch the way the whole enterprise generates a mountain of ‘waste’. Most P.R. effort produces zero or negative result – which is right and proper, as most client P.R. objectives are radically disconnected.
I share the concern of other commenters above, though, about the way social media has become a space for deceptive/cynical P.R. (I have no concern about journalists and P.R. in social media – both should absolutely be there.) The concern aside, does social networking fundamentally change the P.R./Journalist/Client economy?
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 1:13 pm
I agree with just about everything Charles says here.
More specifically though, without the obfuscation of metaphor, the precise problem is that too many PRs seem stuck in a methodology that’s focused on issuing set messages and delivering metrics. I have an inbox full of unsolicited commentary, releases and stories that I can’t use every single day.
And yet, when I need access to specific expertise to fit my agenda – when I’m in a position to deliver the coverage their clients actually want – the same effusive folks too often fail to deliver. They respond too slowly or not at all.
Shouldn’t good PR be responsive rather than prescriptive? And if so, why is there so little of it?
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 1:15 pm
First off, thanks for writing this. When I spoke to you on Twitter last week about this, I didn’t expect you to write such a balanced article! No offence intended, but given previous posts on here, you can perhaps see my logic!
I think you’re right to an extent. As a PR, a client is who we answer to, they pay our bills, but that doesn’t mean we have to act as one-way gophers to the press.
I’m a PR consultant. That last word is the important part of my job description. I consult. So, when a client says they want to put out their new software product announcement the same week as Windows 7 is officially launched, I suggest another date. When a client has a US board member of staff in the UK, but has nothing to say other than their corporate messaging, I look at the news agenda and work out what the spokesperson has to offer in light of the current/potentially forthcoming news stories.
In short, a good PR is not one who carries out the clients wishes verbatim and considers it a job well done. A good PR is one that knows both their customers. The journalist and the client.
A good PR knows a journalists agenda, what they like to write about, what makes them tick etc. Additionally they provide a consultancy service to their client to make sure their news, and message is understood by journalists and that a story is produced or comment supplied that puts them in a positive, thought provoking light.
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 1:39 pm
Ah me, what an outbreak of peace and light. Intriguing that no journalists have linked or commented here, but maybe Martin Stabe will pick it up. (Maybe not.)
Why – if this mind-model of clients/PRs/journalists is right – is the PR/journalist relationship so messed up? I’d suggest that it’s not about metrics, it’s about attitude. Journalists don’t see themselves as “suppliers”. Of course nor do the PRs. That’s your basic definition of a broken organisation and relationship right there. The suppliers don’t realise that the car manufacturers need their parts; the car manufacturers think that the suppliers do it for fun. Hell, imagine if the wing mirror-makers for General Motors hated GM because they kept ringing them up asking if they’d received the plastic they use to make wing mirrors. (That’s the other complication of this analogy. The car makers provide some of the raw material for the parts.) But then it all comes together..
Some people seem to be surprised that I’m not being grumpy or whatever about PRs. But as I said, nobody seriously wakes up and decides that they’re going to spend the day annoying people and being yelled at. Nobody sane, at least, and I haven’t met any mad PRs. (Yet.) So there has to be a simpler explanation. For me, this is it.
Does that mean nothing needs to change? I’m not saying that. But if you understand how the machine works, or should, then you have an idea at least of how to make it work better.
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 1:43 pm
I think from the comments on here and from certain colleagues I work with, some PRs are trying to make it better. However for every one that knows how the machine works as it were, there are two, three, four perhaps, that don’t.
It’ll take time, but if everybody keeps an open mind and is aware of everyones agendas, there is hope!
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 1:56 pm
“Ah me, what an outbreak of peace and light. Intriguing that no journalists have linked or commented here, but maybe Martin Stabe will pick it up. (Maybe not.)”
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 1:57 pm
To extend the analogy a little further (and probably too far), you’re asking the car manufacturer: “About those wing mirrors. That’s not going to work, why don’t we put together a video camera system so people can really see what’s behind.”
Car manufacturer sucks teeth, realising that it’s taken six weeks just to sign off on the order for wing mirrors. “Client’s not gonna like this. I’ll get back to you.” Which may happen, but 50/50 it will be a no. The manufacturer thinks, it’s a good idea: should I push for it? Then considers contractual position with client and thinks, better be safe than sorry. Manufacturer either doesn’t respond or replies with a “Not this time. If any other opportunities come up…”
When faced with a decision that involves risk between a paying customer and a non-paying pseudo-customer, people will generally go with the options that involve the least financial risk. So, they will tend to make sure that the client reports are up to date, make calls to ensure that material made it through because at least it looks like something is happening but not do much to change how material makes it from client to journalist.
Others are experienced enough to know where the risks lie and push for a better overall result, knowing that it could all blow up in their face – “Why did you say it was a good idea to do this interview? I look like a mug.” – but that overall they are going to have a better track record.
At least, that’s the picture I’ve assembled over the years.
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 2:18 pm
Wow…that tap was frozen for a long time
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 2:26 pm
I have so little to do with PR people any more that it kind of astonishes me – I’ve been writing for national newspapers and magazines/Web sites for more than 15 years now, and AFAICT I am completely invisible to many companies in the area I actually write about. There’s a slot I write for in the Telegraph that I get a regular trickle of pitches for. I do maintain a mailbox for press releases, which gets a fair bit of mail; when I remember to look at it there’s hardly ever anything of interest. When I was first doing journalism, though, for the trade press, I dealt with them a lot more – and it was definitely to my benefit because a lot of story ideas they brought were actually usable. Now I’m more likely to get tipped off to stuff by people I know and retain as friends from conferences. I’m sure I’d be a lot more clued up if I made more effort to be on the right PR people’s lists; on the other hand I imagine I’d be a lot more unpleasant and stressed out because the barrage really is quite tiring.
I can’t begin to imagine the size of the flood Charles has to cope with.
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 2:47 pm
I’m in a funny position. We have a website that we plan on launching in a few months time. And, no, this isn’t a plug or a press release in disguise. It’s just we find ourselves in a curious position, I read so many posts about the right way of approaching journalists and the wrong way; some want you to cut to the chase, others want to be looked after and befriended. There seems so many unknown, unwritten PR faux pas that we are at a loss. It seems to be an art and one where the elusive prize of being mentioned in the press hinges quite a bit on pot luck. The right approach to the right person at the right time…
We were considering, therefore that the best way of approaching the launch was through a PR company. Professionals who would understand their business and that of journalists. But it seems from your blog that this too is a myth, a unicorn sighting in the wood. That the PR companies are just as bad at approaching the journalists than we are. In fact, maybe worse as they wind you up so much.
I think therefore our approach will be one of honesty and integrity. “This is the product, we like it, we’ve enjoyed creating it, we think it might be of interest to you or your readers. Hope so, but not a problem if it isn’t. Perhaps we’ll be lucky with the next journalist we meet.”
At worst we can be laughed at as naive, however, whatever happens it will be the truth, because surely if we believe in the product, then you dont give up at the first person who says no thank you.
Footnote: One comment on the whole car/wingmirror/customer analogy – as a client if I was buying a car from a company that didn’t look after their suppliers they would make a rubbish car out of cheap and rubbish parts (insert your own image of lower than acceptable car here), therefore it should stand that if I chose a PR company who messed up and gave irrelevant information to journalists who couldn’t stand them I would expect the PR to flop. Is that not so?
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 3:29 pm
I think the analogy does work to some extent, and the trouble is some PR people seem to allow themselves to think they are working on a Ferrari when really it’s a clapped out Fiesta. Not only have they allowed themselves to believe that, they are daft enough to think they can convince the journalist that’s true too. The silly beggars. And they do that by attempting to give it some fancy name that says precisely nothing about what it’s capable of or why it’s a much-loved old banger.
Instead of taking their client to the garage to get them seen to and buffed and polished as well as they could be, which I would see as applying rigorous news sense, and working with a journalist on a compelling or genuinely *important* angle, or deciding if it can *genuinely* and reasonably fit with what a journalist is specifically looking for, they think that actually they can just give it a bit of a rub down then try and manhandle passers-by to tell them what great pulling power it has.
Why else the desperate and sometimes insensitive attempts to shoe-horn in a commercial product to say, a totally unrelated enquiry from a journalist through a social media platform or service such as Response Source? Judging by the quality of some of the responses from those sites, some PRs haven’t even recognised it’s a garage they need, I think they’d be happy in a butcher’s.
But – however tenuous the anology and however ridiculous my attempts to carry it on, I do think that there are loads of PR people out there who do know how to oil an engine and make it purr. (Sorry this is getting stupid now.)
I’m one of the strange breed of journalists who have ended up doing some media relations work and it’s a very challenging thing to do. (Leaving aside the ethical considerations of such a position.) The key as far as I am concerned is at least attempting to understand what different journalists in different sectors/positions within a news organisation want – same as a freelance journalist has to tailor their pitches. How can they help them get their car on the road?
At a time when some media do take press material and print it without any noticeable change, then it’s going to be difficult for a new PR person who sees someone as respected as you making this point while their reality is that some media contacts are actually glad of what they send through – to fill space and appease a baying news editor in an increasingly high pressured newsroom. I get a regular email from the PR arm of a news agency telling me of the widescale coverage they achieve in national papers based on surveys and advising that I could pay for them to do the same for PR clients – because the will is there from journalists to feature this stuff. The journalists who are putting that stuff in the paper may also publicly bemoan the ‘did you get my email?’ approach but actually that email is providing the sort of copy they evidently want to use.
Thanks for the food for thought.
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 6:35 pm
I like it Charles, it has given us industrious PR’s a great insight into the way to your heart.
A good PR always knows when to close the call and not annoy a journalist. In fact, the first training I give executives is to ask if it is a good time to call – nothing more annoying than a journo being on a deadline and someone rabbiting away at them however relevant. We also tell clients when it is not appropriate to issue a ‘no-news’ release, not that they like to hear it.
I have worked on both sides of the coin and one thing that I have brought to PR from journalism is the ability to identify what the actual story is and how you have to tailor it to meet each individual publication’s requirements. However, to do this you have to read the publication and get a feel for what it considers ‘news’. And there is the rub. I have met account execs from many of the larger tech agencies who never read a paper beyond the Metro let alone get insight into the differing styles. There is a big difference between pitching to a trade paper and a national newspaper and I am sure from your comments that you have been on the end of trade orientated pitches rather than news ones.
We will take your comments away and learn. We hope you have gained a slightly better understanding of PRs from our comments.
Thursday 5 February 2009 at 7:46 pm
I’ve been media training for about seven years now and the first thing I try to establish in a client’s mind is that the journalist doesn’t work for them. By the same token, however, the PR doesn’t work for the journalist and so many of my profession lose sight of this immediately – if they ever had sight of it. Since the PR is often dependent on said hack’s output they’re rarely, if ever, brave enough to point this out. I normally urge them to do so, politely – many journalists respond very well.
The other side, and I don’t believe I’m saying this on one of my commissioning editors’ blogs, is that some journalists seem to believe their copy is going to be untainted by money whereas the PR’s interest in a topic is purely financial. To them it’s a moral issue. Well it isn’t necessarily so. Put it this way: I’m currently writing something for Charles. I’m lucky enough to be able to write about stuff that interests me but come on, if I’m honest with myself, there’s no way I’d have spoken to as many commentators, lawyers, competitors and others about this particular topic had Charles and the Guardian accounts department not been doggedly waving fivers at me. I’m interested, yes; interested enough to investigate and report in depth without money changing hands, no.
So, my interest is going to be as commercial as that of a PR – it’s just that the interests I’m moved to serve by the arrangement are those of the Guardian readers as I perceive them (or more importantly as my commissioning editor perceives them). Contrary to the apparent beliefs of some journalists with whom I’ve worked I don’t actually consider this gives me any particular moral high ground, just a different perspective and set of accountabilities. This is where the relationship can break down of course; in the heat of the moment a PR or journalist forgets that they’re both working towards different if related ends, and assumes the other is an incompetent when they’re not – they’re another professional whose task may on occasion overlap but isn’t actually the same and never has been.
On another topic in the post, I’ve always imagined the ‘have you received my press release’ call was an excellent way of breaking in new PR executives – you want them used to rejection from journalists, so you put them onto what’s almost certain to be a set of hostile calls early on. Am I being too cynical?
Friday 6 February 2009 at 1:30 am
Guy, TBH I’ve always thought the assignment to make those “did you get the press release” calls was a hazing ritual.
Friday 6 February 2009 at 10:09 am
As somebody who now sits on the media side of this divide after 10 years in PR I concur that your observations are correct. Yes, the PR industry is dominated by inexperienced kids who fundamentally know nothing about the products/services they’re ‘pitching’ and the call to ‘sell in’ to a journalist is an infuriatingly common tactic in most agencies. I agree that the solution is for PR agencies to counsel their clients better and for ‘media relations’ to be undertaken by more experienced staff. I would like to think that in 10 years in PR I said no to clients frequently (perhaps too often for my own good in fact) and that I almost never pitched a story that I didn’t think would be of some interest. But you know what – and perhaps you won’t like to hear this – the ‘sell in’ phone calls take place because it sometimes works. It’s a numbers game. Agencies have grown off the back of this tactic because it produces something akin to results they can sell back to their clients. It’s a bit like spam, it wouldn’t exist if the economics didn’t support it. If nobody ever responds to spam, it stops. If journalists rely less on crap PR, it stops too.
Friday 6 February 2009 at 3:06 pm
PR is still very much a profession that can be entered by anybody. Get a PR agency to hire you as a trainee and off you go. Your individual learning curve depends on the people in the agency and their knowledge and understanding. Now try to think about other professions that apply this method. Funnily enough, journalism does – but – and here is a big difference and further ground for misunderstanding of roles: whereas journalism is pretty straight forward: finding a good story, writing it and getting someone to publish, PR is less well defined. Actually that is not quite true, but it certainly is a lot more complex (please cry wolf now).
If you want to become a really good PR person, you need a very good understanding of how communications works and even more importantly how to manage it. And this is where the trainee approach usually fails. PR agencies have a too limited view and knowledge (exceptions apply). In addition, they are driven by their customers who usually have sometimes even less of a clue, especially when PR is done and managed by marketing people, which is still common.
It’s usually marketing folks that try to push their latest product/service enhancements (enhancements and not something new) to the market via the media. Unless, somebody pushes back by arguing that it’s not strong enough an announcement to make, it will end up in the recycle bin of many journalists, annoying a few along the way. Again to push back you need to know why (understanding) and be able to back it up (knowledge).
So here is my proposed solution: better and standardised education of PR/comms people. I am a strong advocator of university degrees in communications, and by this I don’t mean market comms. A few courses here and there is very apparently not enough. By communications I mean the management of communications: how does it support the business, what is the value of comms for the business, how do you measure it, what are the tools of the trade, who are the stakeholders/audiences/supporters and how do you communicate with them (this is were journalist come in) – to name a few aspects.
Friday 6 February 2009 at 3:15 pm
The first National newspaper to find a way to run ‘a day on the newsroom floor’ (or something similar) for PRs to experience what you do first hand – will make a MINT.
Friday 6 February 2009 at 3:18 pm
I can’t reach you on the phone. Did you get my press release?
Friday 6 February 2009 at 7:02 pm
Charles – 10 things for you to consider about the tech PR industry (in no particular order):
1. Every time someone like you bemoans the “did you get my press release” tactic, PRs rush to decry the practice: “Oh no, we don’t do that”. Then who the bloody hell is then? It clearly continues at a significant enough rate to remain an issue for journalists across the board.
2. Profit margins for most PR companies are small (20pc plus net pre-tax margin is a stellar performance. Breaking even or making the loss is the norm for most (66pc of PR firms says Plimsoll). Don’t believe me? Go and look at Companies House data. Even in the boom times of the late 90s, the way companies made real money was through overservicing. As an old boss put it to me recently, “we made the profits we did because people were prepared to consistently work beyond 6pm at night.”
3. Overservicing in trad PR continues to be endemic. And is getting worse. As a result, more people are leaving the industry and those that come in to it, don’t expect to stay around for too long.
4. The basic finder/minder/grinder model (director/manager/account executive) of PR agency is still in place. It is predicated on media relations being the primary reason clients hire an agency. (A recent survey shows that print coverage is still deemed more valuable than online coverage by PR firms and their clients). And yet as I’ve cited many times before, your average agency spends barely 15pc of its time on media relations. The vast majority of time is spent on account management/reporting/admin. For all the words poured out by tech PR firms about their clients products, how many are actually deploying them in smart ways to automate whole swathes of admin and reporting that is currently being solved by throwing bodies at the problem?
5. Who starts PR companies? People who have worked for other PR firms. (I’ve wracked my brains to think of a PR company that has been started by someone from outside of PR – perhaps the industry could do with some fresh eyes on the problem). The only model they have any knowledge of are the firms they have previously worked for. If the same basic model is still being used, and it appears not to be working, isn’t it time someone developed a new model?
6. PR firms are generally poor at client expectation setting. This is usually driven by the need to win business at any cost – because there is a generally pessimistic view that you have to keep getting new business because you are bound to lose some of your existing business. Life is a constant battle to keep more coming in the top than you lose out of the bottom. (Given that the av. tech marketeer lasts on average 2 years in the job, a cynic might argue that this is a sensible attitude. The number one reason for an agency losing the business is a change of client personnel rather than poor performance). Over promising leads to overservicing, squeezed margins, less money on training, and ever more desperate tactics (see point 1) being deployed.
7. There are more PR people chasing fewer journalists. The signal to noise ratio for journalists grows ever higher. It leads to PR firms trying to squeeze every ounce of juice out of the traditional PR agency model ie throw cheap resource at delivering over ambitious targets for clients with more demanding expectations – based on a total addressable (print) media coverage space that is getting smaller by the day.
8. I suspect a 90:10 ratio exists in terms of UK media coverage ie 10pc of tech companies account for 90pc of press coverage. Which means the other 90pc (ie 9,000 tech companies in the UK?) are all vying for that 10pc stump. Trouble is, given point 6 above, many PR companies will give the impression to the 90pc that they can eat significantly into the top 10pc’s coverage real estate.
9. The tech PR campaigns that win PR Week awards or similar are exceptions rather than the norm. The classic winning formula is usually Company X only spent Y on this campaign and generated coverage worth Z. This re-inforces the idea that all PR campaigns can achieve amazing results on small budgets. It has become a truism for marketing directors and PR Managers to say that PR is the most cost effective element of the marketing mix. And yet, certainly in the tech sector, PR has remained stuck on around 5pc share of client marketing budgets for as long as I can remember. With marketing budgets being cut, PR’s share of the pie would appear to be going down. Meanwhile, digital marketing continues to take an ever growing share of budget (12pc and rising says IDC).
10. Most people in tech PR hate media relations (or at best, would rather not have to do it, if given the choice). The reason people hate doing it is because they hate the response they get from journalists when theyy ring up to ask “did you get my press release”. However, unsurprising if they are simply perpetuating an industry-wide institutionalised behaviour (see point 5).
There are clearly other factors – but the reasons for your current perception of the PR business are connected to all of the points above. I could go on but you can read more about stuff (over 3 years worth) at http://escherman.wordpress.com.
Friday 6 February 2009 at 9:35 pm
I had my rant at PR the other month and what a surprise…the industry weighs in, as here. Andrew Smith provides what for me is the most coherent response on his blog: http://escherman.wordpress.com/2009/02/06/10-things-for-charles-arthur-to-consider-about-the-tech-pr-industry/
As it happens I know Andrew very well and he’s never bothered me with anything I didn’t think was useful, even if only that meant a passing sentence in some obscure trade pub. I also know Becky. Recently she milked my brains for the price of a very enjoyable Thai lunch and an afternoon’s free wifi. Fair exchange and a pleasure to help. See that’s the difference. Andy and Becky have spent years (on and off) building a relationship with me. They know I’m a crusty old fart but one who hopefully provides the odd bit of entertainment value and who, for all the grumpiness, is ultimately fair about whomever I write.
Like Wendy, I no longer have a great deal to do with PR – or at least I TRY not to. I guess I’m in the privileged position of being someone who came to writing late but with 20+ years experience of a particular subject matter. I don’t need PR telling me they have the latest and greatest. I can pick all that up through the interwebs or through my personal network. The stories that come that way will be far less varnished than: “Company X the leader in…..” followed by “Did you get my email’ or its slightly more subtle sibling: “I have this great story idea I think you’d like…” (yeah right – me and 50 others no doubt.)
But there are things that have changed – at least for me. Today, I am far more willing to share information, often via Twitter, on stuff I find interesting or simply to bait someone (anyone) into providing a new perspective. Is that the way stories will be told in the future? I don’t know. But what I do know is the stories I find THIS way are often far more interesting than those that are spoon fed off the back of the PR lunch truck. And a lot more fun to develop.
Saturday 7 February 2009 at 1:58 am
I work in PR. I’m not usually a big fan of dealing with you Charles. You are well known for being difficult to deal with, but I’m sure you won’t lose any sleep over that and you’re big enough to still publish this. Sometimes I wonder whether this is ineptitude of the PR industry and you’re just worn down by it, but other journalists manage to be quite civil.
So I started reading your post a bit biased. But, despite a slightly muddled analogy, you’re bang on with the sentiment.
With a number of agencies going down the pay by results basis, it can only get worse. I’ve wondered how journalists feel about being the means to the end – ie coverage means getting paid. PRs are taught at university, something about the media being a filter to getting the message to their customers. It feels horrible just typing that.
It’s shit because journalists, by and large, want to write stories that are balanced and thought provoking. PRs just want to get coverage. The bit that no-one’s ever really publicised is that 99% of the so-called “messages” placed in the media have zero effect on the audience. Sure, SOMETIMES a piece will have a massive affect for a client, but most of the time it’s just noise.
Just look at all those surveys that get printed in national newspapers every day. Ask a punter on the street if they can ever remember who paid for the survey and they’ll say no. But I can guarantee there’ll be some PR bunny jumping up and down in the office for hitting their coverage targets….
Isn’t it about time we re-evaluated what PR means and how we go about it?
How about limiting the number of people that can enter the PR profession to save journalists from being swamped by dross and naff calls? If you get blackballed a number of times you lose your licence.
PS: top response from Andrew Bruce Smith – always spot on
PPS: any chance of PR Week running this story?
Saturday 7 February 2009 at 2:26 pm
“Ah me, what an outbreak of peace and light. Intriguing that no journalists have linked or commented here, but maybe Martin Stabe will pick it up. (Maybe not.)”
No maybe about it. As someone who has been on both sides of the PR/journalism divide, I’d never ignore a smart analysis of this freqeuently strained relationship.
All PRs should read the comments above by James Warnette. I couldn’t agree more: Any PR manager at the “minder” level (as Andrew Bruce Smith describes it above) who doesn’t explain to their client that annoying busy journalists would be detrimental to their communications objectives isn’t advising their clients properly.
Monday 16 February 2009 at 6:52 pm
Automobiles and pizzas? I think it is a little less obscure than that. You push shit, you get shit. You tolerate shit long enough, you turn into shit.
Thursday 26 February 2009 at 4:59 pm
Love the debate as usual and wish I had more time to share my extensive views on this topic. I hope to see the PR industry consolidate during this recession because the fundamental problem is that there are too many agencies and it’s too easy for a client to find one that will agree with them. Many clients don’t want to accept courageous consulting of the variety that would make Charles’ and all our worlds a much happier place. For them, courageous consulting is synonymous with ‘being negative’. You see, many technology companies are run either by salespeople (who drink way too much of the corporate ‘Kool-Aid’) or engineers (who think getting press coverage is like running a factory). If only PR people would just execute their great ideas, they would be splashed on the cover of every major spinning broadsheet, just like in the old movies – so simple!! So they shop around the 850 different agencies of massively varying standards until they find one that is desperate enough to promise them the moon for the price of an asteroid and make it sound like a dawdle to get their ‘solution’ covered in the Guardian Technology every week. Then the the honeymoon ends and the deluded client chucks out their crappy agency, reduces their budget even more, runs a ten-way competitive pitch and flatters yet another one into over-promising by confiding to these naturally insecure people the details of their previous horrible experience. PR people, particularly leaders, know this is happening and it’s really up to us to be brave enough to assert ourselves with clients, share these types of journalist blogs with them and slowly end this cycle of madness and humiliation. Yes, even if it means that we are temporarily unemployed! We are absolutely not stupid, clueless people and we can damn well do better than this. This is a really interesting, rewarding and dare I say even important job, when we execute it with courage and integrity.
Thursday 23 December 2010 at 1:18 pm
Give us the top ten BEST AND WORST AT IT