Time for us PRs to take some flack

This article first appeared in Marklives.

Recently I wrote about experiences I’d had in dealing with media and journalists where I felt that, sometimes, their behaviour fell short of expectations. It wouldn’t be fair not to stand up and take the heat in return, so I asked our friends in the media to let rip with their feedback on pet hates they have with dealing with PRs. And let rip they did.

Embarrassingly enough, the same old stuff kept on being mentioned — the same careless approach that PRs have been accused of doing for years on end. How have we not learned yet to sort it out?

So, nothing new here, folks’ let’s have a little chat among ourselves about what we could be doing better.

1. Being careless and sloppy

This was the biggest bugbear from literally everyone I spoke to: inviting people to events or telling them about things in cities that they don’t live in; typos; poor grammar; badly written copy; getting names wrong on emails/invites/name tags — the list goes on.

As one journalist said to me, “My pet hate is when a PR sends a personalised email addressing journo from rival magazine and references wrong publication.”

Come on, people. That’s just rude, if nothing else.

Apart from that, we are pitching and selling ourselves as experts in communication, yet we can’t even get a name spelt correctly? Hmmmm.

2. Not having a clue about media

This is just as unforgivable, in my opinion. Again, we are supposed to be experts on media — what the difference is between different media outlets and platforms; who writes about what; what their audience likes to hear about or read, and so on. Yet, again, the same frustrations are cited by journalists over and again.

Pitching ideas or stories that are completely irrelevant to the media outlet (an example was given of a PR sending local community news to a tech publication). Sending byline pieces where the “author” quotes themselves. Not knowing (or even bothering to research) who they are pitching to or knowing what beat they cover. Or, as cited by the editor of this venerable website, “Have never heard of them. Have email address, hits send”. I had a boss once who was insistent I send out samples of washing powder to fashion bloggers, convinced that they would be gagging to write about this wonder product among their reviews of trends and catwalk outfits. Just embarrassing all around.

So often this is blamed upon the “juniors or interns” who don’t really know what they are doing and are just trying to carry out some vague instructions from a senior. That’s a cop-out and unacceptable, however.

First, whoever is mentoring and managing those juniors needs to take the time to sit with their team, explaining how things work and what is trying to be achieved. Clients are paying the business to care, and to be professionals. Palming it off on juniors is not good enough.

Secondly, everyone who works in PR, at all levels, needs to eat, breath and sleep media. They need to be avid readers and obsessed with media — whether that be a passion for magazines, a hunger for news, or fanatical about blogging. If they can’t be bothered to understand the difference between a community newspaper and a tech blog; or how an editor and a features writer differ, they are probably working in the wrong industry.

3. The “follow-up” phonecall

Dreaded by media worldwide. Dreamt up by some evil account director somewhere, in the aim of further killing any sort of amicable relations between the PR and media contacts.

For those who don’t know what I am talking about, it goes something like this.

Scary account director (or client, maybe) tells junior PR person that they need to get reams of coverage everywhere about whatever dull thing the brand has just done. Poor young PR person dutifully sends out dull press release to every known email address linked to a media outlet. Deathly silence in return. Scary account director (or client) requests results from poor, quivering, young PR person.

“What do you mean, we’re not on the front page of every newspaper?” they demand angrily. “Give them a call personally and make sure they run it!”

Poor, young PR person then calls up every poor journalist on the list (usually who are on deadline/holiday/or in the middle of having an operation in hospital) and meekly asks them “whether they had received the press release and would they be publishing it?”

Here’s the deal, though. The chances are they had received it, along with a hundred other waffling and irrelevant press releases. And they don’t want to do anything with it because it is irrelevant or boring or just because they don’t like the product or the person sending it. The phone call won’t make any difference. If the story or brand is interesting enough, they will run it, and they will make contact if they need any more information.

A recent example came from an editor of a luxury magazine who tells of a poor PR who kept hounding them with mournful phonecalls, pleading with them to run features about some dental floss among their fashion pages

Let’s just make it the year we kill off this “follow-up” phone call, now already?

4. The dreaded “spray-and-pray” approach

This is the unending belief in quantity over quality, and, again, it’s just laziness in not bothering to individually address and develop a bespoke pitch to each media person.

UK blogger, Kat Williams, summarises this perfectly when she talks about her frustration with being spammed:

“These emails are usually flanked with the imposing phrase ‘FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE’ (capitals and bold type are obviously mandatory to demonstrate just how damn important this piece of ‘news’ actually is)….

These days, and for the most part, journalists and bloggers want to publish exclusive content. We want to be the first to break a piece of news or showcase an amazing story idea. By sending out a press release to everyone, you’re offering the exact opposite of what we really want. The most likely outcome is not that it’ll be picked up and written about with enthusiasm, sending thousands of new customers your way, it is more probable that it’ll be relegated to a spam folder… because that’s exactly what a generic pitch sent out to hundreds of media outlets with the vague hope that at least one of them will bite is. Big fat spam.”

5. Not understanding that journalists are (quelle surprise!!) people, too

Strangely enough, most journalists aren’t gagging to spend their free evenings at our crappy brand launches. So, if we’re expecting them to come, we should at least make it pleasant for them. And let’s not ask them to do stuff they don’t feel comfortable with.

Blogger Leigh van den Berg explains this neatly: “I think it’s rude when people expect me to write about an event, but don’t invite me to it. I’m uncomfortable endorsing anything I haven’t been able to try, test, taste, experience myself. I’m all about credibility.

“My reader’s [sic] rely on me for an honest write-up. If you send me something and I don’t like it, I’m not going to feature it. Please don’t assume that, just because you sent me your super-fancy product with a side order of Lindt, I OWE you a rave review.

“And really? You’re inviting me to your hot new bar opening sans partner? Gosh. That sounds like fun. Here’s me standing in the corner all alone like Loser Girl while I pretend to tweet stuff…”

(PS I reckon her piece about PRs is required reading for everyone in the industry and should be taught as compulsory reading material.)

6. The stuff of nightmares

Then there are just some horror stories that stand alone in their awfulness. Both of these were submitted incognito by an ex-journalist who wanted to remain anonymous as they had recently moved over to the dark side themselves, becoming a “Pee-Arr”.

Horror story #1: “A PR agency sending out press information that was incorrect, resulting in one of the parties concerned threatening to sue the publication when it was published”.

Horror story #2: “I was invited to go to a conference [overseas] with a multinational [redacted] vendor and, having the flights home messed up by the PR who booked them, I was almost stranded at [an overseas] airport. I managed to sort it out, but when I tried to contact the PRs during the ordeal to ask for help, the reply I got was ‘the flights should be fine’. There was me, near tears and having no idea how I was getting home, and that was what I got? From my hosts?”


Emma KingEmma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.