This is my weekly Loose Wire Service column, an edited version of which was recorded for my BBC World Service slot. Audio to follow.
There's a moment in All The President's Men that nails it.
Bob Woodward is telling his editors about when he'd called up the White House to confirm that Howard Hunt, one of the Watergate burglars, worked there as a consultant for Charles Colson, special counsel to President Nixon. "Then," Woodward tells his editors, "the P.R. guy said the weirdest thing to me. (reading) 'I am convinced that neither Mr. Colson nor anyone else at the White House had any knowledge of, or participation in, this deplorable incident at the Democratic National Committee.'"
Isn't that what you'd expect him to say, one of the editors says. Absolutely, Woodward replies. So?
Woodward, the script says, has got something and he knows it. "I never asked them about Watergate," he says. "I simply asked what were Hunt's duties at the White House. [A beat.] They volunteered that he was innocent when nobody asked if he was guilty."
This, to me, is not only great cinema but classic journalism. It's a classic PR error, and you can see it all the time. Not always as dramatically, but it's there if you notice it. To say or do something that reveals what your client really cares about—and how much they care about it.
I see it in breathless press releases that I never asked for. Read: We really, really need to get this information out. We're desperate. So you think I'm just a press release churning machine, is that it?
I see it in interviews when the media-trained exec grinds each answer back to the message bullet-points he's got tattooed into his brain:
When did you start to think there was a problem with the building? When the people start falling out one side? We have always focused our synergistic approach to inbuilding personnel customer management by being people-centred, and while we regret the involuntary vertical defenestrations, we're sure that until they exited the building extramurally they felt as empowered as we did about the efficiencies we implemented by removing what turned out to be vital structural features.
I see it in unsolicited pitches that offer interviews with CEOs who really should be busier than this—particularly ones that end with "when is your availability?" as if to say, if we give the impression you already said yes, maybe you might. So you think I'm stupid and gullible, is that it?
I see it in PR companies which are a little too eager to lend us technology columnists a gadget. Read: this is a product that isn't good enough to sell on its own, so we've got a warehouse full of them to try to get fellas like you interested.
I see it in a cupboard full of gadgets that PR companies promised to come pick up after I finished reviewing them but never did. Read: even the client doesn't really care any about this. And it certainly belies the talk about the review units being in hot demand.
This sounds like heaven, I agree, but the reality is that there is such a thing as too many gadgets. Especially ones which weren't that good to start with.
Just this morning I saw it in a emailed response from a major software company in response to a very specific question I'd asked. The question was sort of addressed, but tagged onto it was pure PR-speak, addressing a bunch of imaginary questions I hadn't asked, or even implied I was interested in. Lord knows how long they took to put this together. Actually I know—10 days, because that's how long I had to wait.
As a journalist, when you get one of these responses your instinct is to remove clumps of hair from your own head, or, if already clump-free, those of family members or passers-by. But actually, buried in the robot speak are the nuggets.
The email in question talked of "a community effort...to understand and unravel this extremely complex issue." I'm not going to tell you what the complex issue is, but the words are a giveaway: "We couldn't figure this one out ourselves so we had to turn to companies we'd have much preferred to have humiliated by getting there first."
Subtext: We're not actually as good at this as we thought, or our customers assume. We were out of our depth so we're falling back on the old "we're all in this together" trick. Works great if you're at the bottom of the bucket and the crab above you looks like he's about to make a break for it.
Buried in all that unrequested bilge are quite a few good story ideas. Nothing tells you a company's weak spot than PR guff dreamed up in hope of putting journalists off the scent. Thanks, big software company, for pointing out your sensitive spots!
Of course, coupled with the "But I never asked them that" is the Sherlock Holmes' dog that didn't bark clue. In Conan Doyle's short story Silver Blaze Holmes is summoned to investigate the disappearance of the eponymous racehorse. The less-than-impressed Scotland Yard detective asks Holmes: "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
In this case, of course, the dog didn't bark because it recognised its owner, who turned out to be the guilty party. Whereas the Woodward Clue is about what PR folk put in that wasn't asked for, the Holmes Clue is about what they leave out. In PRdom this can be requests that go unanswered, questions that are get very short answers while others get long ones, answers that skirt the question, or requested review units that somehow never arrive.
In the case of my big software company response, it's the fact that they omitted to really answer the question I asked—and got very vague when I sought a timeline. It's not rocket science to know when smoke is wafting in your direction.
So how should PR avoid these pitfalls? Well, the first rule is to answer the question, or tell the journalist you're not answering it—and preferably why. Not answering it by pretending she didn't ask it is going to infuriate a journalist and flag that there's something there worth chasing.
But worse, don't answer questions you weren't asked. At least not directly. You can let it be known there's more if they want it, but don't forcefeed them. Journalists aren't all Robert Redfords, but neither are they foie gras geese.
You can always tell if a journalist knows you're not answering the question: they'll nod a lot. Nodding a lot doesn't mean "I'm agreeing with you, and I'm just desperate to hear more", it's "Why is this guy telling me stuff in the press release totally unrelated to what I asked? I wonder if he'd mind if I tore his hair out?" Nod, nod, nod. The nodding, of course, is a desperate attempt to speed up time so he can ask one more question and get to the pub before it shuts. Never works, but it's a sort of reflex action in the face of too much barking, or not enough.