Tag Archives: PR

Ten things PRs do that really annoy journalists – part seven

To restate, this series is intended as constructive advice to those who work in PR, a job that I know can be difficult and thankless. I’ve spend a decade dealing with PRs, many very good (see here for a recent example), others not so. I’ve also spoken to dozens of other journalists about what really grinds their gears about  PRs. This is the summary of that experience and those conversations. The story so far…..

1) Expect journalists to operate as an unpaid media monitoring 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

6) Arranging conference call interviews

Number seven is one that will surprise no one, but one that still happens far too often: saying you’re going to do something and then not doing it.

As in, “Oh yes, I can send you those quotes from our client by the close of play today”, or “Not a problem – we’ll get that case study interview lined up for you”, or “We’ve got all the data sitting here – it’ll take a while to go through it, but leave a gap in your article and we’ll send you the stat you need, and you’ll just be able to insert it before filing your copy.”

Over the years I’ve heard all these promises and more. Many times the PR is as good as their word, but all too often they’re not – the quotes don’t turn up until the next morning when the article is already filed, the case study interviewee gets cold feet, or the PR discovers they don’t actually have the necessary stat.

Why is this a problem? Is this just pompous journalists being overly critical of their PR partners?

I don’t think so. I don’t get bothered by it because I’ve been let down; I get bothered by it if it means I in turn let someone else down – specifically, if I fail to deliver to a client by the deadline I’ve been set.  That really is a problem for me.

But still aren’t we journalists being a bit harsh here? After all, the PR is no doubt hoping to be able to help, is genuinely doing his or her best.  In most cases they don’t deliver simply because they’ve been let down by someone else – very often the client of a client. It’s a bit harsh for journos to have a go at them for that isn’t it?

To some extent yes. No one is perfect. However, this happens too frequently in the world in PR. I think it’s the sort of over-promising and over-delivering that gives the industry a bad name and that makes it a more stressful place to work that it needs to be.

Journalists would be far happier if PRs were more realistic in their promises. If they explained that they will do their best to sort out a case study interviewee, but they don’t know for certain that their client’s client will agree to it, then the journalist wouldn’t rely on them – he or she would be able to judge accurately whether or not it was worth waiting and if it was worth the PR spending all that time on something that doesn’t work out in the end.

Am I being too demanding? Or naive even? Should journalists just accept that that’s life. People let you down. Deal with it – basically don’t rely on a PR to help you out with a job that, at the end of the day, is yours to do.

I guess so. I’m not paying for this help from these PRs so I have no right to demand that they do anything.

I know though that if I worked in PR I want to be one of the ones that journalists did trust.

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PRs – time to name and acclaim

You know what? Sometimes PRs are absolutely brilliant.

Sometimes you’re writing a story and it’s not going so well. You’re missing a case study that’ll bring it all to life, or you need an expert to give you some incisive comments on exactly what is happening, or it’s lacking some  killer stats. Sometimes it goes like that, and you start wondering what you’re going to do. You worry that the whole thing isn’t going to hang together and that you’re going to let your editor down. And then you get an email from a PR who does everything he or she is meant to, and suddenly it’s all right. The world is a happy place again. It’s a beautiful thing.

Ok, maybe I’m getting a tad carried away here. But the point is that sometimes it does happen, and it rarely gets noted. In amongst all the bitter sniping and public wrangling between the hacks and the flacks, there doesn’t seem to be a space for we journos to point out these times when a PR does a really great job, helps a us write a better story, and no doubt gets some good coverage for his or her client.

So, I thought I’d start a new series on my blog to do just this. Somewhere I can name and acclaim a PR who I think has done something well. Now, being this positive goes against every fibre of my being, influenced as it was by a firmly British upbringing which taught me to always favour grumbling and criticism over celebration and praise. But bear with me. I’ll give it a go, and let’s see how it pans out….

A couple of weeks ago Paul Maher of Positive Marketing read my e-newsletter, saw that I was writing an article that one of his clients could comment on, and so dropped me a brief email explaining who his client is and precisely why they’d be great for the piece. I agreed to an interview and so he set it up promptly, sending out details for the conference call in good time, and even calling just before the interview to check I was still on for it. His client and I had a good conversation. He answered all my questions openly and made interesting points supported by facts, figures and real-life examples. Once or twice Paul gently nudged his client in the direction of points he should be making. It was a great interview. Then, later that day, Paul emailed me a pic of his client and details of a LinkedIn group we’d discussed in the call. It was exactly the follow-up I needed. Throughout the whole thing he was friendly, efficient, down-to-earth, and clearly understood exactly what I was writing about.

Result? I’ve got some great copy for my article and am very happy. He should also get some good coverage for his client.

Now, why can’t it always be like that?

(I should add for all you cynics out there that I have absolutely no commercial relationship with Paul or his company. I’ve never even met the bloke, and what’s more he has no idea that I’m writing this!)

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Are your media spokespeople doing this? Question 5

Are they following up after an interview with an email to the journalist?

If they are then well done them – they’re doing better than almost anyone I’ve ever interviewed. The handful or so who have done this over the years are the ones who I’ve gone on to form good, long-term relationships with. I’ve had a good source of information and opinion, and they’ve got a lot of good coverage.

So, why does it happen so infrequently? I’m just suggesting something like: “Good talking to you just now. Hope you found what I had to say interesting (by the way, I’d welcome any feedback you have on how I came across..) – I look forward to seeing the finished article and to working with you on similar pieces in the future.”

How long would it take to fire that over to a journalist after an interview? What impact could it have on the coverage they got in that piece and the future relationship they built?

The thing is that it just doesn’t occur to most spokespeople, and usually that’s because they’ve not had media training, or the media training they have had hasn’t covered this. Why don’t you help them get more out of the interviews they do – why don’t you book them in for some media training?

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Are your media spokespeople doing this? Question 4

Do they signpost key messages?

This is something that very, very few people do successfully. Even fairly accomplished spokespeople – the people who are clear on their marketing messages, who cleverly find a way of weaving those into answers that are genuinely useful to the journalist, and who approach media interviews calmly and capably – even they very often find that their key messages don’t make it through into the finished article.

It can be incredibly frustrating for them.

Signposting is a great way of making sure the interviewer understands your key messages, notes them down, and then uses them in his or her copy. It’s a difficult technique to master – do it too obviously and it can be counter-productive – but I’ve worked with spokespeople practising it in roleplays, and helping them to start using it to very good effect.

Listen in to the next media interview your spokespeople do – are they signposting their key messages as well as they could be?

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Are your media spokespeople doing this? Question 3

Do they approach interviews confidently? Do they even look forward to them?

Too many people dread media interviews. They think they’re going to get caught out by a Paxman-style shark of a journalist, and end up saying something that will jeopardise their careers.Who wouldn’t be worried about something like that?!

Of course with proper training they’ll be clear about the messages they want to convey, they’ll know how to link those into answers they give journalists, they’ll know how to convey those messages clearly, succintly and directly, they’ll know how to deal with awkward questions. And most of all they’ll look forward to media interviews as an opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of their specialist subject, to promote their business, and to have an in-depth discussion about their industry with someone who’s genuinely interested in what they have to say.

Who wouldn’t look forward to something like that?

So, if you have to search high and low for someone to speak to the media, if you have to persuade your spokespeople to make time for these interviews, if you get the feeling they dread the experience, why not do them – and yourself – a favour and book them in for half a day’s media training?

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Are your media spokespeople doing this? Question 2

Are your media spokespeople answering questions directly, clearly and succintly?

They probably say they are. They probably even think they are. But very, very few people I interview do this well.

Some never quite address the question head on, even when it’s giving them a great chance to sell their company, product or services.

Some lose their message in a welter of empty jargon, management-speak, and general verbiage.

Others just talk. Sometimes even before I’ve asked a question they’ll launch into a speech and on they’ll go. They’ll talk and talk and talk and talk, ignoring my desperate attempts to enter the conversation, just a torrent of words flying out until I’ve lost the will to live, let alone write down whatever it is they’re waffling on about.

The thing is most people aren’t even aware that they’re falling into any of these traps. They think they’re doing a great job. So, help them out – listen in on the next interview they do, and see for yourself whether they are genuinely answering the questions directly, clearly and succintly.

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Are your media spokespeople doing this? Question 1

Are your media spokespeople preparing properly for interviews?

This isn’t just putting the interview in their diary and having some idea of the journalist’s name. It’s finding out a bit about the journalist so they can try to gain some rapport. It’s thinking beforehand about the questions they’ll be asked. It’s being crystal clear about the key messages their company is trying to push through the media. And it’s doing the really tricky part of working out how they can give the journalist something he or she wants while also conveying those marketing messages.

Far too many senior executives think they can just pitch up to a media interview and wing it. They very rarely can.It usually just means they miss a good opportunity to promote their business.

So, if yours aren’t preparing properly then try suggesting to them that they should. If they want to know what sort of preparation to do then take them through the list above. If they’re not sure how to go about doing all that,or they need a bit of practice to get confident at it, then suggest they get some media training.

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How to convince someone they need media training?

I’ve begun the year with a flurry of bookings for media training – I have eight sessions to run over January and February. This is great, because I love doing media training.

I enjoy putting forward my ideas on how to perform well in media interviews, and the roleplays are always fun, but what I think I enjoy the most about media training is spending four hours shifting the perceptions of Chief Executives, MDs and other senior people about how to deal with journalists, what they can get out of the media, and even about the need for training in the first place.

Almost without exception senior people begin these sessions with arms folded, eyebrows raised, and a high degree of scepticism in their voices. They’ve got plenty of other important work to be doing. They don’t need to spend half a day listening to a journalist tell them how to do an interview. They know what they’re talking about and if interviews go badly it’s because the journalist is either incompetent or malicious.

Four hours later they’re fully engaged, doing a roleplay and putting into practice what they’ve learnt into the session. Almost without exception they conclude the session by telling me they really didn’t want to do this training, but it’s been remarkably worthwhile and they want the rest of their senior team to do it.

Now, who wouldn’t enjoy that sort of feedback?!

I’m sure this is a scenario many of you will identify with. If you work in PR you’re probably very used to dealing with senior executives who at first don’t understand the media and are very sceptical and suspicious. You’ve probably also had that joyous moment when they do get it for the first time. But it probably doesn’t happen with everyone — many just won’t listen to your strategic advice, invest in media relations resource, or agree to any skills training.

So, I’m going to give you a tool to help break down those tricky mediaphobes. For each of the next five days, beginning tomorrow, I’m going to post something to look out for in how they approach media interviews.

If you’ve got a senior executive who you suspect could get better coverage from the interview opportunities you provide for him or her, check to see if they’re doing each of these things.

If they’re not doing all of them then they’re not performing as well as they could be and they would benefit from media training. You will also have concrete evidence to put to them to persuade them that this is something they need. You can explain to them that media training will improve how they do X and here was an example of where they would have had a better outcome from an interview if they’d done X.

I hope this is helpful. To get these tips delivered to your e-mail inbox over the next five days you can subscribe to this blog very easily by popping your e-mail address where prompted in the column to the right.

Let me know how you get on….

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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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Do editors want your pitches?

The ability to pitch to editors is absolutely essential for anyone who wishes to use the media to convey a message. However that pitch is made – be it e-mail, phone or in person – if you can persuade an editor to run your idea for an article you will be very well placed to get good coverage in that article and so reach your intended audience.

However, it is not easy to do well. It is a large part of the reason why companies hire PR experts – in-house and agency. They need people who know how to pitch article ideas to journalists and editors. It’s the skill that marks out the PR professional from the amateur.

And yet, very few PRs know how to do it well. From my experience as a freelance journalist, and from canvassing the views of editors I know and write for, the vast majority of pitches from PRs are poorly conceived, clumsily expressed, and very often a waste of everyone’s time.

This is a problem, not just for the PRs but also for those editors. The first thing that any PR should bear in mind when building a pitch to an editor is that the editor genuinely wants to receive good pitches from PRs. They absolutely rely on them.

Put yourself in their shoes. Their publication is well-targeted – perhaps on a trade such as retail, a business activity such as human resources, a geographical region such as Brighton, or a hobby such as running. Even if they work for a national newspaper they will have a section they edit, such as the arts. The point is that there is only so much you can say about retail, HR, Brighton, running or the arts. And these poor editors need to fill an entire publication or section every month, or every week or every day.

After a while every editor runs out of ideas. Unless they can find a good source of new ideas they will start repeating themselves, their publications will become stale and their reader numbers will fall. Once reader numbers fall so does revenue from subscribers and advertisers. It is a vicious circle that can prove fatal to any publication.

So, they need to find new ideas. They try everything they can to generate them themselves – brainstorming in editorial meetings, asking ad sales colleagues, scouring the Internet for ideas, networking at conferences, and so on. But no matter what they try they will always be reliant on third parties for fresh article ideas.

That’s you and me – PR professionals and freelance writers.

Without us, most publications you see on the news stand would rapidly become very dull. We play a vital role in providing the editors of those publications with new ideas that will stimulate their readers and boost their advertising revenue.

So, they want you to succeed. When they open an e-mail from you they want to see a good idea that they can use.

However, this doesn’t mean that they’ll accept any idea you send. You are up against stiff competition – hundreds of PR professionals and freelance writers, to say nothing of the hundreds of amateurs who want coverage for their cause, story, or business. So, you need to know how to stand out from the crowd.

In my next post I’ll be sharing my thoughts on how to do exactly that (or to learn exactly how to do it, sign up to my course on Pitching to Editors – http://www.alex-blyth.co.uk/training_details.php?id=3) but for now, I’d like to offer this optimistic thought to every PR out there who is struggling to pitch an idea to the media. It’s always difficult, and with so many publications suffering from plummeting ad revenues and so dropping their pagination, it is more difficult than ever beofre. But it is not impossible. And the people on the end of the phone or reading your e-mails DO want you to succeed!

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