It’s the day before a long weekend as I begin this post (UPDATE: and days later when I finish it – gosh, being a news editor is fun!) and I’m catching up on emails after a few days out of the office at a thoroughly fascinating conference in Cape Town. When I have some time to gather my thoughts, I’ll share some recordings and blog about the highlights of the International Press Institute’s congress – it really was worthwhile and I want to chew over what I learned before sharing it. In the interim, you can search #ipiwoco on Twitter to see what people were discussing and what issues were raised.
This post, though, is not about the IPI. It’s about PR “practitioners”, who call me things like “media colleague” or, my favourite, “media friend”. In the interests of fairness, I have asked a “PR colleague” to blog a response to this sharing his experiences of journalists and our many failings. I won’t only be sharing PR horror stories – I am lucky to deal with a handful of very capable PR folks, and will share some of their secrets. I asked for input from both journos and PR people, and those who’ve done both jobs, using the hashtags #prstories and #journostories and am very grateful to my colleagues across the spectrum for their suggestions.
So here you are: some ideas for PRs who want to do their jobs well, from a news editor and with input from other journalists
1. Know thy media outlet
I get at least one request a week from a PR person who wants to know what the deadline is for “your Monday edition”. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that you know City Press is a Sunday NEWSPAPER with a 24/7 website which my colleagues heroically keep running. A shockingly simple way to do this is to read City Press for a while before pitching anything to it. This way you’ll come to understand something about our style, the kinds of stories we cover, the different sections we offer (are you pitching an op-ed? That goes to our Voices section. Do you represent an exciting start-up company? Pitch to Business). You’ll also learn a bit about who writes for us, and start to suss out who your contact person should be.
On this point, a word about websites: they are not the red-headed stepchild of the media. A good website is too valuable to ignore, considering how many eyeballs it can attract(citypress.co.za is one, bias or no bias; the Mail and Guardian has a great website too and you should thoroughly study media organistions’ websites to see if what they’re doing could be a good fit for what you’re pitching). A quirky, fun little story that comes out on a Tuesday may not be suitable for a Sunday newspaper, but may fit really nicely on that brand’s website.
2. Wasteth not my time, verily
I’m not suggesting that my job is more important than yours (although it is almost certainly cooler), but I really am very busy. All of the time. I find time to do the crossword every day, and to read the newspapers, and to maintain this blog, but that is time I will continue to jealously guard in my bid not to go stark raving bananas. For the rest of the time, I’m working. I am in meetings, constructing diaries, briefing and debriefing journalists, planning pages, reangling stories, being yelled at by the production staff who rudely refuse to fit thousands of beautiful words on a page, insisting on such things as headlines, photographs and captions. My email is open more or less all day, every day, and you are one of – on average – 300 people mailing me on my personal work address and about 500 mailing me on the general news list. That’s a lot of emails. Here’s what’s guaranteed to make me hit “delete”.
a) what somebody clever on Twitter recently called “spray and pray” – totally unfocused releases directed at no one in particular. This absolutely reeks of desperation. It will be ignored.
b) jargon kills puppies. It’s true: every time you send a press release utterly riddled with jargon, a small, adorable puppy drops dead. I don’t care if you don’t like dogs; surely you’re not cruel enough to want to kill them? I don’t know what it means when you tell me that the ABC of the XYZ has scaled the greatest heights of B.E.I.N.G A.N I.D.I.O.T actually means. Neither will most of the people who read my publication, I bet. So ditch the jargon.
c) “Here’s some information about an event which happened three days ago. We’re sure it will be very topical.” – no, actually, it won’t. At all. In this age of Twitter, constant radio bulletins, TV updates and the like, your three-day-old “news” will be even older by the time it hits my Sunday paper…
d) actually, I do know better. I am prepared to admit that I’m not always bright, and not always right. I make bad judgements, and get things wrong. But when it comes to knowing my newspaper and knowing its audience, I bet I know more than you do. Don’t fight with me – it just gets my back up. You’re welcome to ask for my feedback when I say “no”, but don’t be a bully. It’ll make me even less likely to want to deal with you in future.
UPDATE: Shout-out to the PR person who just sent me an email about road safety over the Easter weekend…on the Wednesday after the Easter weekend. Also a slow-clap to the person who can’t understand why a story about Easter-specific insurance might be a little outdated. You guys are giant chops.
3. Don’t screw my story, yo
As someone on Twitter suggested, it’s hugely frustrating when you put in a request for information to a PR … who then puts out a generic release to absolutely everybody. I know it’s used as a tactic to water down stories, of course, and hey, all’s unfair in love and war. But it does nothing to build our relationship, and that can be dangerous for you. So consider carefully whether you’re unnecessarily burning bridges, or if you really, really need to engage in the Art of War.
4. Don’t make promises you can’t keep
You send out a great press release. It’s something that piques my interest, and we’re having a perfectly nice conversation and you’re making me great promises – like a sit-down interview with the person who is behind this brilliant innovation/development/good news story/controversy. And then you ditch me. Don’t do that. I often tell reporters not to over-promise and under-deliver, and I’d urge the same caution here. If you can’t follow through, don’t start by making promises.
5. Be smart
I have to keep using City Press as an example, because that’s where I work. City Press is a Sunday newspaper and one which I hope is well known for its depth of analysis and its passion for telling human stories. What good do you think your dry, dull press release on a Tuesday will do for me? Sweet F.A, is what. Think cleverly – how will you help me and a reporter to bring the story to life? What access can you offer us? How will you help me dig into the jargon and tell a really awesome story? Oh, you won’t? You’re just checking the boxes by sending your press release to every single newspaper/media house ever? Then go away, please. I really am very busy.
6. Please don’t try to bribe me
Nobody has ever offered me money as an incentive, I am glad to report. But I get lots of freebies. And I have to declare every single one of them, and mostly hand them over to our managing editor. They, and all my colleagues’ freebies, are declared and then auctioned off at a year-end party to raise money for charity. So thanks for your contribution to charity. Please don’t think that offering me a free holiday, or a nifty goody bag, is going to change my mind about reporting your client’s story. And by the way? If a journalist asks for an incentive of any sort, you need to seriously consider reporting them to their editor. Unless, I mean, bribery is the only way to get your client’s story published anywhere.
7. Be there through thick and thin
My favourite PRs are those who handle the tough questions as quickly, honestly and thoroughly as they do the easy ones. Company PRs who don’t go AWOL as soon as the brown stuff smashes into the fan, then reappear just in time to put out a simpering press release about the company’s corporate social investment programme. A fine example of someone who gets it right, even if we’ve clashed in the past, is the current acting D-G of the Department of Basic Education, Panyaza Lesufi. He answered his phone even when the only questions we were asking related to his department’s inability to deliver textbooks to pupils in Limpopo.
Right. There’s lots more that I’d like to say, I’m sure, but hopefully these seven suggestions will get us going for a really good discussion. I’d really love to hear from “media colleagues” and PR folks on this – who knows, maybe we can all learn from each other, and broker world peace or something while we’re at it.