Ten things PRs do that really annoy journalists – part six


Five more to go in this series. Just to recap for anyone joining late, this is a list of ten things that PRs do that really annoy journalists. It’s not meant to be an attack on individual PR professionals, or on the industry as a whole. (I’m not the sort of journalist who posts lists of PRs’ e-mail addresses saying he never wants to hear from them ever again – http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/columnists/article6977065.ece?openComment=true. Ouch.) I am though the sort of journalist who puts a lot of effort into building mutually beneficial relationships with others in the industry, and this is part of that effort.

So, with those caveats in place, here’s what I have so far:

1) Expect journalists to operate as an unpaid media montoring service
2) Going oddly silent/AWOL
3) Sending irrelevant press releases
4) Writing like a PR, not a real person
5) Pitching like they’re selling timeshare properties

Number 6 is fairly straightforward but is a perennial bugbear of mine, and of many other journalists. It is arranging conference call interviews.

They just don’t work. I’m not just talking about the practicalities. True, sometimes the technology doesn’t work. I particularly remember an interview with the VP of Sales of a US-based teleconferencing company; for about five minutes we had terrible interference on the line, but we’d spent a long time trying to arrange it and I really needed her quotes, so I persisted, asking her several times to restate the point she’d just made. She gamely struggled on, getting louder and louder, until finally I could just make it out above the crackling din – “I WAS SAYING THAT OUR SYSTEM SUFFERS FROM VERY LITTLE INTERFERENCE!” Very similar to a flat I once viewed above a busy road. The estate said something. I couldn’t hear so moved closer and asked her to repeat it. She said it again. Again it was drowned out by the rush of cars below. On the third attempt she shouted: “I WAS SAYING THAT THIS IS A VERY QUIET FLAT.” I could only reply sheepishly: “It’s not really though, is it?” “YES IT IS! VERY QUIET!” She wasn’t having it at all. I think the incessant sound of passing traffic might have driven her a little mad. But anyway, I digress, and to be fair on conference call technology, almost all of the time it works fine.

No, the real problem is that it ruins the dynamics of the conversation. Interviews work when there’s a journalist asking questions and an interviewee answering them. You can develop a rapport, progress the conversation in directions you both find interesting, really get to the crux of whatever it is you’re discussing. It takes a bit of time to get beyond the formal introductions and the wariness that most interviewees feel, but if you’re a half-decent interviewer you reach that point, past where people are trotting out safe truisms, where they’re really delving deep into their expertise and coming up with something fresh. And that’s where you find the really interesting material for your articles.

The problem with conference calls is that you never get beyond the formality, the wariness, and the truisms. The interviewees spend too much time thinking about the other participants on the call and not enough time thinking about the issue in hand. They’re wondering who’s best placed to deal with a particular question. They’re worrying about saying something off message. They’re trying to impress their colleagues. I don’t blame them – it’s just how people tend to behave in a group.

I do though blame the PR executive who allowed it to happen.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Ten things PRs do that really annoy journalists – part six

  1. Alex, I do agree with you & most of my clients are happy to take my advice & are confident to make their own calls (I always ask the client to initiate the call as it saves the journo’s phone bill & means the client isn’t hanging about waiting). However I find it is Americans who often insist on a conference call. It’s a culture thing & I guess that to have a UK PR they will be large enough to have internal politics so worry about stepping out of line & covering themselves.
    There is one instance where a con call can be helpful though: in my own education. Keeping up to date with an MD’s latest views can prove hard, so if I think my guy will be covering new ground I might ask the journo if I can listen in (on mute).

    • Celia

      Yes good point – but I can tell you exactly why this can happen because I’ve definitely done this before myself. When you work in agency you set up calls with journalists and you make sure that you are essentially leading the call between the journalist and the client – not because you intend to be a big part of the conversation but because you want to own that relationship. Journalists want to speak to the person directly to get the juicy story, but there’s this feeling that if the journalist goes directly to your client that day and then continues to do so (thereby cutting you out of the chain) then this could lesson your value to that client as a PR. Conference calls are what you are taught to do in agency and so you do it, but I agree it doesn’t make for a particularly good setting for the call. Since moving in-house I’ve limited this the majority of conference calls I arrange (especially if they are between an external client and a journalist as opposed to an internal member of staff) and if I’m on a call because I need to be for follow-up content I make sure we’re calling from the same line and that I have a background role – and that works.
      Ps: Nice blog revamp

  2. Katy Askew

    PRs need to sit in on interviews so they can consult with their clients afterwards. If they don’t get to hear what journalists ask, what peaks their interest and what doesn’t, how will the PR consultant be able to advise the client on next steps?

    Most phones now have a conference function, which means the PR consultant can phone both parties and conference them into the same line – all the client and journalist need to do is pick up their phone when it rings!

  3. Thanks for commenting, Katy, Jane and Celia.
    I should have been clearer….
    I have less of a problem with the PR being in the background on the call. I understand why it happens, and while it’s not perfect – as the interviewee can worry too much about being on message – it’s widely accepted practice.
    My main issue is with more than one interviewee – for all the reasons I outline in the post.

  4. Pingback: Ten things PRs do that really annoy journalists – part seven « AB Words Blog

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