I have a special folder in my Outlook mail called OMG – ‘Oh My Goodness’. It’s where I put all those priceless emails that come my way. I must confess that more than a few are from public relations officers (PROs), writes Diane Macpherson in a story first published in The Media magazine.
From the outset, let me state that there are many, many excellent PR officers out there; those who know and understand the media and how to match up what their client is after with a specific media organisation. But for every true professional, there are arguably many more who are actively doing their client a disservice by irritating the media.
Take those press releases about pretty much nothing, for example. You know – the ones with the results of an obscure overseas survey, with the PRO’s client’s comments on the outcome at the end. “For interviews, please contact XYZ.” I call this the ‘hit and miss’ release.
Then there are the ones that arrive out of thin air, have ‘urgent’ in the subject line, usually in capitals; address you as ‘Dears’, and talk about an event that is happening in Pofadder, when you’re clearly operating in an entirely different province. This tactic only serves to irritate the editor targeted. In my case, I make a mental note to put the offending PR firm on my virtual blacklist. Once there, they get three strikes before they’re persona non grata. Conversely, PR officers who routinely send high-quality, spell-checked and relevant releases are held in high esteem and valued as sources of news.
I concede that not every PR person has clients about whom the media is scrambling to write, and it must be quite a difficult thing to be tasked with getting PR for the car hire company’s CSI project or the launch of an oscillating fan. But that’s when the PR officer should engage in niche marketing – being very specific about who they send that release to.
E-mail fatigue isn’t confined to media people, but we get a huge amount of mail on a daily basis. I left the office for an hour one day and arrived back to over 90 new mails, many of them from PR people. When they’re about the Pofadder oscillating fan launch I get a little annoyed. If your PR strategy is to cast as wide a net as possible, it’s time to change that. I’m not alone in feeling ‘e-overwhelmed’.
Google lists are another bugbear. In fairness, this is usually done by political parties or trade unions, but a few PR firms are doing it too. The mails arrive in your inbox courtesy of Google and instruct the recipient to take action to unsubscribe. Don’t worry that you never subscribed in the first place. It’s like getting an SMS saying you’ve won a prize, only to find out you have to pay for the postage on that prize. A prize cheek! Spam is very un-PC, and does nothing to endear one to a particular brand.
Rapid expansion may partly be to blame for the deteriorating standard of PR in many South African quarters. A one-person operation expands, more consultants are taken on, and they’re not trained or experienced enough to navigate the stormy seas. “Dear Mr Editor (when you’re clearly a Ms), Pls find attchd our latest release (Strike 2!) – Client is looking for maximum exposure” (Strike 3). Some things should remain in-house.
A favourite in that folder is the one from the junior PRO who, when I mentioned we had run the story, asked if I could please give her the rand value of the mention so that she could inform her client. Ja, right!
Numerous so-called media and communications experts send invitations or press releases in the name of ‘First name, Last name’.
Another told me, when I said it wasn’t something we’d be able to cover as it wasn’t considered hard news, “No, you don’t have to cover it, but can you attend the launch? We’d like the press there.”
A common occurrence is the release typed up on a Word attachment, with a logo or two on the page. Not a problem in itself. The problem arises when you check how big the message is – five megabytes for a simple Word document. Oh, they forgot to resize the logo. Add a few massive photos and that email can end up being 12 megs.
Occasionally, the lack of attention to detail has amusing results. I must point out here that the following two examples were not strictly the work of PROs, but government communications people. One said of a municipal mayor, “His Horship…”; another proclaimed boldly in the subject line, “RURAR HORS RIDING…”. What was even more amusing about the second example was that a superior in the department wanted to reprimand the author for being so sloppy. Except that he hit “reply to all’ and so his little message went out to everyone in the press. It read: “Please proof read your work before sending out. We project a poor professional image when we make blatant errors. Look at the errors in the header of this e-mail etc.” Oops, bet he didn’t feel smug for long!
The moral: Proofread, proofread, proofread!
Finally, and in fairness, I must reveal that I’ve experienced the flip side of the coin. Eight or so years ago I took a brief hiatus from radio news, going to an HIV-related NGO, ostensibly to write up stories and profile the organisation. Effectively I was a PRO. It was very disheartening how ‘rude’ the media were. My painstakingly-crafted releases about newsworthy things were hardly ever acknowledged. It felt rather like dealing with the ‘e-muda triangle’. Hit ‘send’ and never know what happens to the mail.
As a result, I really do try to reply to all releases, even if just to turn them down. But in return, I ask only that I’m mailed well-constructed, geographically accurate, proofread releases that are relevant to my audience, and not merely advertising about that oscillating fan, now available in Pofadder, dressed up as news.
Diane Macpherson is news editor of East Coast Radio. This story was first published in The Media magazine.