What reporters hate about PR people


David Maister’s blog has this which gives US journalist Tommy Fernandez a good platform to give PR folk a good kicking.

The following was my long comment to this piece:

I should start by saying that these arguments about PR people are as old as the hills.

But to take one specific point – is that PR people don’t understand journalists?

No. On the whole, I’d say PR people do understand what journalists want
– the real issue is that their clients or the people they represent
don’t understand what journalists want.

However, PRs seem to suffer from an endemic inferiority complex ie not
being confident enough in their own judgement and experience to tell
their clients that their expectations are too high or unrealistic. The
stereotype view of the PR is to be relentlessly upbeat and positive –
saying No is viewed as a sign of weakness. Yet any other business
advisor would surely counsel their clients to temper their expectations
if they knew the outcome was likely to end in failure.

Why is this? The old cliché about PR is that you can tell how important
PR is to the firm by how far the communications director’s office is
from the CEO. Generally, PRs – either in-house or agency side – are
viewed with at best suspicion or worse contempt. Which is curious given
that most senior execs in any business will usually say that PR (or the
firms reputation) is of paramount importance. Yet in terms of overall
marketing spend, PR never gets anything like the investment received by
other marketing disciplines. If you take the tech industry as an
example, according to IDC, for every $100K spent on marketing by tech
companies, only $7.1K of that will be spent on PR. The figures don’t
lie.

Also, in any industry sector, certain firms are always likely to get
the lion’s share of attention by journalists – however, all companies
seem to behave as though they have a right to a similar level of
exposure – but if their PR advisors don’t provide realistic
expectations of outcome, then you end up with the situation outlined by
Tommy Fernandez – and I realise he was referring to law PRs, but his
arguments could be applied to any industry – and have been for years.

Let’s take his points in turn:

TF: There are too damned many of you. (He gets more than 100 calls involving law firm pitches per day. Do the math.)

A: As he says, do the maths – it is impossible for all companies to get
the same level of high, positive press exposure – yet PRs act as if
they can. I don’t doubt that many ring up journalists like Fernandez
knowing full well that the pitch will fall on deaf ears – but at least
they can say: “We tried.”  Which is somehow supposed to justify the
investment in time and money.

TF: It’s getting nearly impossible to tell your pitches apart. There is
no trend you can imagine that I have heard several times today.

A: Again – it requires serious effort to create a compelling and
differentiated story – and this isn’t just lack of elbow grease on the
part of the PRs. This is related to the firm’s own readiness to truly
formulate a proposition and story that really stands out. It’s not just
the PRs, but senior management that must also share responsibility for
this. Or indeed the whole firm.

TF: You don’t listen (or keep promises about when you’re going to get back with a quote or supporting evidence for a story.)

A: OK, maybe there are some slack PRs out there who are just plain
unprofessional – but I bet most of the time, they have acted in good
faith but are let down by someone else within the business who doesn’t
keep to their promises.

TF: You treat reporters like your social worker (“you’ve got to help me
out of this situation”.) I am not here to help you. I am not your
social case worker. I am not here to protect your job, make you feel
good or help your clients. The sooner you accept that reality, the
better of you’ll be.

A: Very true – but you can see how PRs are driven to act like this if
they are being forced to execute a PR campaign they don’t fundamentally
believe in.

TF: You treat reporters like a social trophy (Come to lunch and meet
our top execeutives and discuss the latest developments in document
flow management software.” “What do you mean you don’t want to spend
three hours with our management committee to educate us on ….)

A: Again – if the PR reminded senior management that what they consider
important is not necessarily what the reporter considers important,
Tommy might not have had so many wasted calls like this.

TF: Your clients are dumbasses and you don’t tell us: “Is that really
the right question to be asking? Is this really the right story to be
writing? I’ll tell you a story you should be working on, although it
won’t really be a story until the winter, but that’s beyond your
deadline, isn’t it?”

A: Again – PR people need to be more robust in explaining to their
clients about what is a realistic expectation – if they have a better
story that can be told at a later date, then give up on trying to get
coverage now based on a non-story. And yes, everyone needs to be seen
generating results – but the other danger is that by pursuing the
journalist now with a poor story, he will be less inclined to consider
the better story further down the track – a lose-lose situation.

TF: Reporters hate you (PR) becaude you act like used car salesmen. ‘A
study in nausea’ he calls it. -Drop your fantasy. There is no spiel, no
gimmick you can use to compel me to abandon my common sense.  The
attitude of reaching (PR) goals is actually one of the easiest ways you
can shoot yourself in the foot.

A: PRs have to have goals – the trouble is, the goals are too often
unachieveable – either because senior management haven’t been told, or
refuse to listen. The come across as car salesmen because they are
attempting to modify demand to meet supply – rather than modifying
supply to meet demand.

In short, Fernadez’s arguments are as old as the hills – however, I
suspect nothing much will change until PRs have more belief in their
counsel and experience – and their clients are prepared to be more
realistic in their view of what can be achieved by PR.

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