Category: Advice for PRs

Things that work and don’t work in trying to interest journalists

Live, PR, live in the 21st century

So there’s lots of people reading my post about the evils of PR done badly.

But who ever suggests how to do it correctly?

Well, here’s a start.

Emails: have a meaningful subject line. Often it’s the only thing the journalist will read before deleting it. Journalists delete lots of emails. Never, ever leave it blank.

DO include the content of what your client insists should be attachments in the body of the email. More and more journalists are reading their emails on the move, so they can’t necessarily view attachments, and won’t set their phones to download them. Text is cheap. Put it in the body of the email. And then tell the client you don’t need to include the 1MB attachment because it’s been dealt with in the 50K text of the file. (It’s just left out the vast logo nobody cares about.)

DON’T send PDFs as attachments. Can’t get the text out cleanly, can’t read them easily.

DON’T include pictures unless they’re the very smallest thumbnails, for the reason just given above: mobile data is an expensive pain.

DO include a link where we can get the entire press release and/or the images for it. We might want to link to it so readers can gasp at your brilliance. Plus it means we don’t need to copy or retype stuff. If it’s embargoed, give a username and password to log in so we can look at it. But set that to expire so everyone can see it in time.

DO, if you’re going to inflict a survey on people (mostly: please don’t) include a link to the original data where the journalist can download it and play about with it. Normal humans might like to do the same.

DO understand that journalists get gazillions of emails every day, plus we’re looking around at blogs, plus we have stuff to do ourselves. We don’t necessarily have time to respond to every one. In fact, we definitely don’t. (See above about deletion.) That followup phone call just gets in the way of us writing a story, linking to your press release, writing our own hard-hitting expose. That’s why journalists are so arsey on the phone. Well, some of them.

DO read my post about how PR and journalism are orthogonal. You don’t ring up McDonalds asking them to fix your car. A lot of PR is getting too mailing-list driven. Know your journalist before you email them.

But most of all do include links. Put this stuff on the web. It’s 2010, not 1995. News organisations have changed. Why hasn’t PR?

How PR fail works. Or fails to work.

Hot on the heels of Kevin Braddock, who posted (and then rescinded) a long list of PRs who had sent him annoying emails, I’ve been noticing a rise in the number of rubbish emails – badly targeted, irrelevant, trivial, stupid – that have been landing in my inbox.

The cause, as we all know, is companies that gather lists of journalists, assign vague labels (“technology”) and then pimp those lists to all sorts of PR companies. Meaning that the puzzled (to begin with) journalists get bombarded with emails about all sorts of “technology” topics, from heavy plant machinery to web apps for diets to which company has won a contract to do the voice and computer networking for Company X. (The latest to annoy me again in this way is Cision, which keeps pimping my email in this way. I really dislike them. I’ve search my very large email repository for emails sent via Cision, and NOT A SINGLE ONE has been useful or relevant. That’s quite a non-achievement.)

This is always done with no regard or interest or even checking as to whether the journalist is interested, or has ever written about this topic. That’s because, of course, it costs the PR nothing to send the email; the annoyed journalists’ wasted time simply doesn’t show up on the balance sheet. (One can make similar points about environmental degradation and the economy, but that might be conflating the trivial and the important.) An economist would tell you that the journalist and the environment both fall into that plain category of “externalities”, aka “I don’t mind, and you don’t matter”.

So here’s how I explained it to a PR person in an email. I’d asked them to stop sending me their irrelevant rubbish. The PR person wrote back with what he thought was a stout defence.

PR person: I sent this release to you on the basis that your readers might be interested in how a company like XXXorganises its [computer] network, despite this type of story not being your main focus.

In other words, what the PR person was saying was this: “Despite the fact that you’ve never written about the topic, haven’t written anything else that looks like that subject, and haven’t written anything about any of the other scores of emails that we’ve sent you. It was just nice and easy and since you didn’t come round to our offices and actually kick us, you must have been really enjoying receiving them.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong. Should I spam every PR company with requests for interviews with everyone I want to talk to – film stars, rock musicians, top technologists – even if those PR companies don’t handle those sorts of clients or subjects? Should I send out an email every week to every PR person and company in my contacts book saying “Look, I’d really like an interview with Steve Jobs, Jonny Ive, Sergey Brin and Larry Page – can you sort that out?”

No, because it would be a complete waste of time for virtually everyone. But it would be trivially easy – I could set up a computer script that would do it without my interaction. Or I could just put a few different names in each week.

Imagine what it would be like to be in PR: as a recipient, you’d ignore it at first, but if every journalist did it, you might find it wearying. And then you might begin by asking the journalist to stop.

It should be so simple: know the journalist (by reading what they write about), then determine the email that they might be interested in receiving. But the externality problem in PRs and journalists is huge. I’ve written about it before. I just wish that some of the people who send out these pointless emails would stop, but of course it’s the worst ones who ignore it, and it’s the worst practitioners who pimp ever-expanding lists of email addresses. Sturgeon’s Law is alive and well.

PR treats journalists not as resources, but like car companies treat parts suppliers (updated)

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?

Charlesís 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.

And just while we’re on the topic of pitching things..

See, compared to the Bad Pitch Blog, I’m just a one-man band standing outside Marks & Spencer in the rain while a dog wees into my collection hat. They get all the good – er, bad – stuff. Like this one.

The Home Sick Pitch: “This editorial plea is near to my heart as it comes from a retail trade publication. An editor at Home Channel News (think distribution channel, not TV channel) has asked the Bad Pitch Blog to voice her plea.

Dear God, can you please help PR professionals stop with the ‘story ideas’?

I work at a business trade magazine – we cater to home improvement professionals in the U.S. I get four ‘story ideas’ per day, on average, suggesting everything from writing about a lumberyard owner who just turned 62, to a CEO’s lousy $500 donation to help pets abandoned because of Hurricane Katrina, to this:

Story Idea: AT-HOME HYDROTHERAPY – Your House or Mine?
As the latest must-have home accessory, new Pipeless Spa Baths are bringing the benefits of at-home hydrotherapy direct to consumers’ doors with luxurious style, substance and safety.”

So they only bring it to the door? Lazy sods. You’d expect they’d lug it inside for that price.

Story ideas. Yes, hmm. It’s hard to know what to advise. If I were working in PR – OK, that’s your laugh for the day – I don’t know where I’d stand on this. The good ideas that people pitch to me (such as one from a face to face meeting with some really good friends last week) weren’t pitched; we just talked about what they’re doing, who their clients are, and I followed the threads that I thought interesting to go down the paths towards what seem to me interesting stories. Did they work? Hell yes – to get clients who they find interesting, who they can talk about. (There’s lots of slog too, of course, getting the little stuff about their clients to become visible; I’m conveniently ignoring that.)

Cooking up story ideas and throwing them at the wall of journalism to see if they’ll stick, in the manner of students checking whether spaghetti is al dente, seems to me fruitless. All that happens is the stuff tends to slide down the wall and leave an ugly mess at the bottom. Journalists know stories, and tend to know what they want. But they’re lousy at PR. And vice-versa.

Thinking of which, one of the friends I met last week was rolling her eyes in relief at having dealt with a journalist from the Guardian (not me) on a story. “It’s so different,” she said. And then suggested a brilliant idea – that there should be a sort of league table for PRs: if you’re not in the top league, you can’t pitch to national papers. You have to work your way up through the trades and so on. Like football – third division clubs don’t get to take on Chelsea or Man U or whatever. Fascinating idea. How do we implement it? Equally, of course, journos on trade papers and so on couldn’t ring up Max Clifford – but then, do they anyway? When I was on Computer Weekly, I always used to wonder what I was doing when I called the PR companies which did high-flying PR for big City banks and blue-chip companies.

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.

When page views go mad, or drive you mad

So I was pointed to an interesting article about Monstermob, the evil geniuses who no doubt have a stock of white cats that they can stroke while going “Mwa-ha-ha-ha-haaaa” (they were the people behind the Crazy Frog ringtone, since you wonder Johnny-come-latelies in the ringtone market – thanks James [his page needs some weird plugin] in the comments).

Read through it, past the most brilliant response by the writer, Louise Armistead to the Monstermob chief exec:

“Give me any track from any artist and we’ll play it on this mobile right now,” he says in a low Lancashire drawl that makes him sound almost bored.

Sound of Da Police by KRS-One, please.

For the first time, Higginson stops and looks uneasy.

“Is that a popular band?” he says accusingly. I nod smugly. “Well, it’s not on our system now but it will be tomorrow.” (It wasn’t.)

Anyway, I’m just getting into the swing of it all when I reach the bottom of the page. “Page 1 of 5,” it says.

At which point I stop reading. It may be true that you lose 10% of your readers with every paragraph (and there’s the lovely fact that the editor from the Society of Newspaper Editors then used that stat to make the flawed deduction that nobody reads the 11th paragraph of a story; in fact if that stat holds you’ve lost 65%, not 100%), but when it comes to clicking through on newspaper pages and having to wait for all the associated guff to load (I block certain adservers on my home router because they just hold up page loads to an absurd degree), life becomes too short. The Guardian’s practice, of giving it all on a single page, makes so much more sense here. People come to read? Let them read. If you need to serve adverts, you might find that the people who read to the bottom are the ones who are really going to respond to adverts.

But cutting stories into twitching tiny pieces in the pursuit of artificially inflated “page view” statistics is actually a great way of losing readers. One of the other tech sites – Cnet? ZDNet? – does this too, and it earns my immediate ire whenever I discover it.

Still, I’m definitely going to try that KRS-One line on someone soon.

Update: Monstermob is now having a bad time of it since then.. Tch.

Just another week in PR-land.. oldest to newest

Spotted on Fullrunner’s “What The Trades Say”:

*GCI* has hired Suzanne Ellis, formerly a senior account director at Firefly Communications. At GCI, Ellis will work on Dell’s account, reporting to chief executive Mark Cater. Cater tells PR Week that Ellis will be expected to “expand GCI’s technology and consumer technology portfolio”.

*Firefly Communications* has hired Christine Wilkie, former head of the tech team at GCI.

Both PR Week, 4 May 2007. (This has been sitting in my drafts box. Life went on. They’ve probably arrived and left by now.) Does this make the two companies even, or is it sort of like Premier League football teams swapping players, or did they do some sort of thing involving music and chairs?

Meanwhile Andrew Smith is trying to remember who sent the first bit of PR email in the UK. He thinks he was the second. (Read his blog for the first.) You know, Andrew, it’s a bit like saying “Do you know who I am?” in the old folks’ home – people are liable to take you away…

Embargoes: why we hacks hate them

Chris Edwards dissects, in truly remarkable detail, the many ways in which embargoes can screw journalists, PRs and companies up. Very well worth reading; he reckons there are four sorts of embargoes – including the “psychically transmitted”:

the story was the result of a more general interview which was, apparently, to have been issued on a release some time later. There is a belief among some PRs that journalists are unwilling to write some stories, even from face-to-face interviews, without some form of release. Do not believe them. They are misguided, even if experience does suggest to them otherwise. Similarly, some PRs believe you can impose an embargo unilaterally. Don’t try that at home. You might be dismayed by the results.

And then there was the other, worse time..

The one that is truly burned into my memory is the launch of some vapourware that involved a trek to Berkshire to a startup’s offices. I can’t remember why I agreed to it as the product was vapourware of the purest form – it did finally arrive, but it took a while and what finally appeared had a rather vague connection to the original plan. On arrival at the office, the PR presented me with a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). I handed it straight back and asked for her to call for a cab. She was a bit surprised – presumably expecting a bit of grumble but, ultimately, compliance. She asked, why? “Because there’s no point in me staying here, is there?” I replied. “I’m not signing it.”

I too hate NDAs (non-disclosure agreemnts). I think I shan’t sign another; these days, with embargoes and NDAs getting exploded all over the web by the fact that loads of people are discussing everything and putting them together, there just isn’t any point. You’ll probably find it out somewhere else anyway.

That’s the trouble with embargoes: they’re almost always artificial, unless they’re something to do with finance, in which case are you sure you should be briefing people anyway? Product launches, oh, sure, except shipping dates can slip. And really you have to have used a product for about a month before you really know what its benefits and drawbacks are.

It’s not often I feel sympathy for PR people.. but then you read.. and laugh

I’d sort of forgotten about The World’s Leading, which is the Private Eye of PR blogs; it had just sat there in my feeds, because it doesn’t offer a full feed (big mistake, guys and gals; I do most of my reading offline, on the train).

But sometimes something catches your eye. Once I’d shaken off the annoying person ringing me up to tell me that WofflyWoff conference would be having an exciting forum next week (me: “send me an email, sure”; PR bod: “and when should I ring you to find out what you’re going to do?” me: “never, or possibly slightly after that”), I passed by and came across what looked like an interesting post.

And it is. A month in the day in the life of a PR person trying to set up some meetings with, dear God, won’t anyone come and meet the chief executive.. sod it, head of sales and marketing.. in the 8.30am slot on Monday in Slough?

OK, so The Economist didn’t return your email, and FT Digital Business is looking more likely than the FT proper, but all is well. CBR is up for it too – should be a nice tour.

Then [marketing boss] calls. The CEO isn’t coming after all. But not to worry, the global head of sales and marketing is coming over instead. “He’s the company’s fourth-most-important exec, so we’ll still get some really good interest.” You’re not so sure. You ask if you can tweak his job title. You can’t. His agenda isn’t fixed yet, but you’ve got his PA’s details and she can fill you in.

A really, really good post. Hell, shouldn’t it author be chasing up some press releases or something?

Oh, and a final note while we’re on topic. There’s been an uptick in the number of completely crap PR emails I’ve been getting lately. Things like “the healing crystal powers of naturally abrogated sea salt” and “51 biscuits that can really help your tan!”. The sort of thing that would only make sense to the fluffiest of magazines.

Who gave you this email, I growled at one?

“PR Planner,” she gasped, deleting my name forever from her lists.

Never heard of them. Google search. Flipping heck. “PR Planner from Cision (formerly Romeike)”.

You can change your name, folks, but you’re still rubbish.