My PR Pet Peeves

On the whole, I find PR people to be great —  helpful, quick and thorough. But some have their quirks. I know I shouldn’t but I’m going to anyway. Here are some of my current pet peeves, all of them including examples I’ve collected over the past few days. Let me just first say that of the 100 or so communications I have had with PR people in the past week, these represent a small minority. But you know who you are!

The Who Are You And What Do You Intend To Do With My Daughter? Response  I have a stock email I send PR people when requesting information, review units or software to test. This stock email includes a list of the publications I work for and my title. Not everyone seems to read it. Here’s one: “Thank you for your inquiry. xxxxx passed your name onto me and he has asked what your intention is on requesting the device.” Just once I’d love to write back “I fully intend to elope with your device and have many, many children with it out of wedlock” or something less suited to a family paper. Sadly, I’ve not done that yet.

The Yes, There is Google, But How Do I Know You’re Really A Journalist? Gambit Not everyone believes me when I tell them I’m a technology columnist. Is it my name? Does it sound shifty? Neither do they seem to know how to use Google, which other people have found to be an excellent background research tool. One email I got this morning: “In order to do this I will need to verify your credentials. Could you please send me a couple of links to technology articles you have written.” Of course this kind of email also crushes one’s ego: “You mean you haven’t heard of me? Outrageous! Make-up!”

The How Is The Review Going Email? Approach Here’s one I got this morning: “I wanted to check in with you to see how your review of xxx is going.” I try to be a nice guy, but if I told everyone how my review of their product was going, I wouldn’t actually have any time to review any products, or write peevish posts like this. The problem is threefold:
– It’s rude not to respond, but by doing so you invite more.
– If you don’t respond, you get more anyway.
– The truth is I have no idea how it’s going. I know PR people would like to know when the column might be due, and I sympathize, but folk like me may have dozens of columns on the go at the same time, and just because we’ve requested a review unit/copy of your product, doesn’t mean we have a clear date set as to when it may appear. If I see something I’d like to review at some point I fire off an email. Then the device sits in a drawer until the planets are aligned and I feel cosmically ready. Really. Just because you launched your product this month doesn’t mean that’s when I’m going to write about it. Honest.

Only one thing worse than this is people calling me in the middle of the night, unaware of something called timezones (usually PR people who work for watch manufacturers, oddly enough) to ask me how the review is going.
“Right now, you mean? Right now I’m dodging flying furniture from my recently awoken wife while also testing whether your product works when flushed down the john.”
“Oh. Is this not a good time?”

The I’ll Let You Review My Product If You Let Me Review Your Copy Before Publication Response Here’s one I got a few days ago: “We would be more than happy to provide a sample unit for your review. However, we would like to preview any articles that you write based on the unit, before they go to press. If you are happy with this, please reply to the affirmative, and we will have your unit shipped via express FedEx within 3 business days. The reason we ask this is that a previous newspaper article had several minor factual inaccuracies, that could have been easily corrected with a quick review of the draft copy.” Er, no, is this short answer to that. Firstly, my publications frown on this kind of thing. Secondly, who in their right mind would agree? Why would a journalist allow the person they’re writing about approve their copy before publication? Would anyone ever trust that journalist again? Finally, what is this person grumbling about? They got a review, with a few “minor factual inaccuracies”, and they’re upset? Sometimes I wonder whether some people even want people to write about their product. Harumph.

The We Got Amazing Coverage In Your Rival Publication, Isn’t That Just Grand? Email This doesn’t seem like a big problem, and it’s not. But why bother? Are we supposed to be so impressed that we immediately feel the need to write something too? Journalists don’t like to be second to something, and don’t see coverage in other publications as evidence that they should start covering the story. In my case, I usually ditch any idea I had to write the story, unless the other coverage seems off, in which case I feel it’s time to do a “more balanced look”, which is journalist-speak for writing something the PR people will inevitably hate.

The If You Won’t Write About Us, We’ll Find Someone in Your Company Who Will Gambit This is one of those sinister ones, where PR firms cut a deal with a journalist to give them the scoop. It’s usually along the lines of “We’ve got this great story/product/event/announcement/report and we’re happy to share it exclusively with you if you publish it”. I try not to get involved in these. First off, because I’m allegedly a columnist, I don’t need scoops, but I also don’t like the implicit compromises that come with it. Mainly, I feel as a journalist you’ve already become hostage to a PR company’s agenda. They want something out in your publication and you’ve agreed to provide it. I’m too prickly to go along with that, most times. Sometimes these compromises are explicit. The offer often comes with a threat: “We need your response by such-and-such a time, or we’ll take the scoop elsewhere”. That always makes me bristle. (I bristle easily.) Call me old fashioned but I reckon readers deserve more than some cut and dried deal between PR and journalist.  

OK, with that off my chest, I’m now going to promise to try to be a better journalist for PR folk. There are some truly great PR people out there who try to move mountains for journalists, with rarely a thank you or even a nod of the head. They deserve better. We journalists should treat you PR people with respect and civility, and shouldn’t ride roughshod over you on our way to your clients. Actually we shouldn’t ride over you at all, roughshod or not. I just wanted to use the words “roughshod” and “bristle” in the same post. Now I have, so I can stop.

12. April 2006 by jeremy
Categories: Media | Tags: , , , , , , , | 12 comments

Comments (12)

  1. Jeremy,
    Funny column and I can relate to this. While not a national journalist, as you know I write for a local business paper. The product I had the most difficult time getting was a $30 electronic corkscrew for a gift guide column. I wanted to try it before I wrote about it. The company was suspicious that I was an imposter even though my email name matched my published column name. They asked me to fax them a copy of my license, but I refused. Finally they sent it, but it was crappy. Ironically the easiest times I’ve had is getting automobiles for testing their high tech features.

    Recently I’ve been getting frequent calls from a battery company wanting to know when I will do a story on their new improved AA batteries. I haven’t figured out how to write an entire column on batteries, let alone understand why anyone would be interested in reading about them.
    Phil

  2. Phil, thanks for this. I think we may be dealing with the same battery PR guy!

  3. I usually find that the “how’s the review going?” is usually actually a “we’re terrified of a bad review, so for the love of God tell us if there’s a problem with it”. Which is fair enough, really.

  4. Jeremy,

    Great post. I’m a PR student about to graduate, so believe me when I say this is more than helpful.

    A short search can find you so much conflicting information about how to and how to not go about pitching and contacting journalists. Even my professors tell me different methods.

    I even have a professor that won’t let me do a presentation on the usefulness of blogs and RSS feeds. It’s “too technical.” Nevermind that it’s also the future of the industry.

    I’ve even read a book (which I won’t mention) that suggested trying the “If You Won’t Write About Us, We’ll Find Someone in Your Company Who Will Gambit,” or at least something really similar to it.

    Thanks for the good advice.

  5. Thank goodness… I’m not alone. Seems PR trolls are the same everywhere.

    Speaking of calls in the middle of the night, the PR people of a certain large US-based hard drive manufacturer rang me once at 4am in the morning when I was working in Singapore.

    I answered the phone with something like “Znnfffwhosis?” and the cheerful voice at the othe end introduced himself, saying he had the CEO ready for the phone interview and what time was it over there?

    “Four in the morning,” I replied.

    “Man, you guys put in some serious hours!” the PR troll said, impervious to reality.

  6. One of the problems with PR people is that most of them have never worked in a newsroom or as a freelancer for a publication. If they had, they’d understand the needs of reporters and have a better relationship with them.

  7. Speaking as a PR guy, I would agree that there are plenty of folks out there in our profession who don’t understand how to relate to journalists. Part of our job – a significant part – is to be a resource to the press. We need to push back and help our clients understand the media world and how it works, not serve as order takers trying in vain to bend the world to conform to the launch timeline for another boring widget.

    The media-PR relationship works best when both sides have some insight into the other’s world and how it works, and treat each other with respect.

    Nice post Jeremy.

  8. Jeremy,

    I couldn’t stop laughing through your posts and the following comments.

    I’m in PR, and often I’m holding back the flood gates of my clients’ demands. Last week my client left me a VM telling me that if she didn’t hear from me immediately, she would call the journalist back personally. What a great way to ruin the company’s relationship with the reporter! I’m imagining her conversation would have been something like this, “I can’t get in touch with my PR person right now, and I needed to know right this second if and when that article will come out.”

    I frequently send (expensive) product to reporters who ask. Sometimes my “How’s the review coming along?” is me asking weeks later “Have you opened the box? If not, do you ever plan to? If not, we could have sent it to someone else. Harumph.” Surely, it’s possible to understand the logic of this.

    Also, unfortunately for your profession many of these tricks work with so many reporters. As horrible as that is, when PR people (not me, mind you) find out they can ask for advanced copy or threaten and it works once, why not try again. Usually these people aren’t the types I want to be surrounded by, and I hold myself to higher standards. But I bet we can all understand the person that thinks “if it works and the client is happy….” After all, that is what pays the bill.

    I always enjoy your funny tales about poor PR, and I always make note and learn.

  9. Allison, thanks for your comment, and fair point on the ‘we’ve just sent you an expensive product and now we have no idea whether you got it or, or whether the whole thing was a waste of time’ situation. I try to acknowledge receipt of something if I remember.

  10. Jeremy,

    Your post was so complete and accurate – and I say that from a PR Specialist’s point-of-view.

    I have worked in PR for 2 years, but I still have a year to go before I get my degree in it. Because I have been practicing PR longer than I have studied it, I try to get as much info on PR etiquette from journalists’ blogs, articles, etc. I learned quickly that the relationship between journalists and PR professionals is one of the keys to my success. I know you might do ok without me, but I wouldn’t even have a job if it weren’t for you. So, knowing the etiquette and building a reciprocal relationship is not an option for PR professionals – it is a necessity.

    In the same way I would not go into an interview without first getting to know the company and its products or services, I would never approach a journalist without first reading his or her work and investigating the magazine or newspaper that publishes his or her work. And, hey, if I can find a photo of the person, that’s even better (I’m not being creepy – it’s just one of those things that helps me feel a better connection to the journalist).

    Thanks again for your post – and by the way – I think by writing this post you are a better journalist for PR professionals. Hopefully it is the journalists (like you) who are keen enough to publish their PR pet peeves, and the PR specialists (like me) who listen to what the journalists say – who in the end get to work together!

  11. Kate, thanks for the comment. I’m with you on the photo thing — makes a big difference having a sense of who you’re communicating with. I wrote all this a year ago, and sadly not much has changed.

    Indeed this post serves a useful purpose in that I can always tell if a PR person has spent any time researching me. One clearly hasn’t; she has what seems to be an automated message along the lines of ‘how is the review going’ which hits my mailbox once every couple of weeks. Well, my spam bin, actually.

    Good luck with your degree..

  12. Jeremy – I just have to say the way I found your blog was by typing “PR Pet Peeves” into a Google search. Yours was the first on the list!

    I went home laughing about some of the comments you made in your post – especially the one about “Just once I’d like to write back”… That really stuck with me and made my day.

    Now the next lesson I need to learn is to look at the date line on blogs.

    Thanks again!