26.07.2016 An old tradition of love and hate: PRs vs journalists

This guest blog is by Rhodri Marsden (@rhodri), a writer and musician based in London. He’s written columns, features and books about subjects as varied as USB cables, bad dates, social media howlers, perfume, anxiety and baldness. He plays in the Mercury-nominated group Scritti Politti and the TV theme tribute band Dream Themes.

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Let’s face it; PRs and journalists have an uneasy relationship. Everything might seem to be harmonious over drinks and nibbles, but when we’re back in the office things are a bit different. Journalists sneer at clumsy PR tactics, and express resentment at having their precious time wasted with emails and phone calls (even though they’re probably messing about on Facebook). PRs, for their part, will quietly explode with exasperation at journalists for being rude and unhelpful, particularly the ones that simultaneously demand favours. In a social media age, that imbalance is further skewed by the fact that PRs are, for obvious reasons, unable to publicly air their grievances about journalists, but journalists will humiliate PRs who’ve annoyed them. It’s not fair. But that’s the way it is.

I’ve been guilty of it in the past. There was that time I was sent a press release featuring James Martin’s new electric carving knife but with accompanying text relating to a ladies’ beauty trimmer (“will remove unsightly hair to the shortest length leaving smooth, soft skin”). It was one of those joyous moments that makes life worth living, and I shared it on Twitter with huge enthusiasm. I hope the PR responsible wasn’t hauled in for a disciplinary – after all, that carving knife probably got more publicity as a result of that blunder than it would ever have got otherwise.

shutterstock_25295059Not a ladies’ beauty trimmer

But journalists like to mock. They like to think they’re better than PRs. They’re not; they make horrendous mistakes on a regular basis, but the editorial machine keeps their worst cock-ups from becoming public. They might hammer out a substandard article, legally questionable, infested with clichés, poor grammar and a devastating lack of self-awareness, but editors and sub-editors would save their blushes before anyone got to see it.

That wouldn’t, however, stop them hooting with laughter and forwarding garbled paragraphs like this:

“James Horbright, Creation Officer the subscription service for gentlemen who conducted the survey, saw not just the welcome rise in gender equality at work, but also other factors” 

Ouch. They’ll pour scorn on PRs who screw up the mail merge, PRs who don’t know how the bcc email field works, PRs who desperately try to recall an email (it doesn’t work, it never does) and any number of other very human blunders. They’ll roll their eyes at a press release that begins “Why not pour sangria into your partner’s belly button?”, or another that suggests that “sleep is the new black”, or one that asks “What better way to start the week than a smartphone case to celebrate the impending royal nuptials?”.

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A journalist, yesterday

But do we ever take a moment to consider how gruelling it must be to come up with new spins on old products? Rarely. PR is a tough gig. And the truth is that we need each other. We should cut you some slack. But do we? Nope.

It would seem a bit patronising at this stage to offer any advice to PRs who want to minimise the likelihood of provoking a journalist’s ire, but there are two easy ones, based on the most commonly moaned about mistakes.

One: Make sure you’ve got their name right. (If you call me “Chloe”, as has happened, I’ll assume you meant to contact Chloe rather than me.)

And two: Read back what you’re about to send out. Read it out loud. If it makes sense, send it. If it doesn’t, change it.

Oh – and there is a third, based upon an experience that a friend of mine had: don’t offer an interview with a celebrity who’s dead. There’s no point. They’re dead. It won’t work.