Does dealing with PRs make your blood boil?

YOU’RE ON
deadline when the phone rings and your heart sinks when you realise
it’s a PR who launches into a long spiel before you have a chance to
tell them you’re busy.

This is just one of the frustrations many journalists experience when dealing with people in the public relations industry.

Jacqui Thornton, The Sun’s health editor, says the most basic requirement she would hope for from a PR would be common sense.

And while Thornton concedes that she has good relationships with many PRs, there are some who make her blood boil.

“A
huge number of PRs have no idea of how newspapers operate and even
those that do can still prove to be annoying. The other day someone
sent me a 4MB email. It blocked my account, stopping potentially
newsworthy stories getting through.

When they called me, I
explained the file was too big and asked if they could send me two
sentences on what the story was about. What did they do? They sent me
another email which was 7MB. I find it incomprehensible,” she says.

Nick
Mason, former Daily Mail northern news editor, believes lack of
experience plays a major factor in the uneasy marriage between
journalists and PRs. According to Mason, who set up PR agency Mason
Media with his wife Lucy, more senior PRs spend their time handling
clients, which means journalist liaison is delegated to those who have
no knowledge of how the media works.

“I dealt with PR agencies on
a daily basis and found the vast majority disappointing in their
approach. Journalists have a short attention span when it comes to PR
people. You only get a few seconds to convince them of the story or
they’ll move on. Lots of people phone up not knowing what they’re
selling.”

Another frustration is badly targeted press releases,
which appear to have been emailed to hundreds of journalists and have
no relevance to your publication.

Mason says it is important that
PRs are familiar with the content of a publication when they send a
press release or make a call.

“Clients know where they want to be
– there’s a hierarchy. Everyone, for example, wants to get in the
nationals. There are key papers and PRs should be aware of them and
know their target market,” he says.

Finding out the best time to
talk to journalists can avoid frustration for both parties. Likewise
being aware of whom to speak to is imperative.

Another issue for
journalists is the creeping tendency of PRs to try to tell them how to
do their job, making demands on when and how stories should run.

Channel 4 News’ chief correspondent, Alex Thomson, says this has reached levels of absurdity in some cases.

“If you agree to let your chief executive do a TV interview, you don’t, in any circumstances, intervene.

It
undermines your relationship with your boss, the media and it destroys
the interview. If you’ve done your job properly as a PR, you can stick
your client in front of any journalist and they won’t blow it. You
can’t control what they say, but if they’ve been schooled it’s their
own fault if they say something detrimental. You would have covered
your own arse.

“What’s inexcusable – and it’s only happened a
couple of times in my career – is where the press officer insists on
sitting in and intervenes, telling you what questions you can and can’t
ask.”

Thomson accepts the industry is reliant on PRs in terms of
access, but prefers it when they are the last rather than the first
port of call. However, he admits there are similarities between PR and
journalism.

“We’re all involved in different aspects of the
truth. A good PR may not tell you the whole truth – that’s the art –
but they never lie.

“You’re trying to present your story in the
most dramatic way and they’re trying to talk their organisation up for
all it’s worth – they’re different sides of the same coin. I don’t
wholly adhere to the idea it’s poachers and gamekeepers, but when we’re
really on to a story as journalists, that’s when the relationship is
most fun and most productive.”

PR guru Max Clifford, who crossed
over from journalism, says it is understandable that journalists are
resistant to spin and the influence of PRs.

“You want to have as
much control and freedom as possible,” he says. “The PR wants the same
– there’s bound to be a conflict, it’s obvious. It’s a competition, as
what the journalist wants is often contradictory. As a PR, it’s how you
conduct this struggle. The more you understand the journalist, the
better chance you have of getting good coverage for your clients.”

Of
course, speak to anyone working in PR and it’s likely they will launch
into accusations about a lack of understanding on the part of
journalists.

Complaints levelled against them include rudeness
and complete disinterest, until the journalist actually wants something
from you, in which case it’s a different story. But Clifford insists
such antagonism is not necessary. Contacts are the bridge between the
two industries, he says.

“Journalists and PRs should be extremely
beneficial to each other, which in my experience they are. You build up
friendships over the years.

When I first dealt with [News of the World editor] Andy Coulson he was a local reporter.”

It
is, he says, “all about working relationships and appreciating each
other’s needs” – something to remember the next time the phone rings on
press day and it’s a PR on the other end of the line.

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