Why Reporters Hate PR Professionals


Peter Shankman recently told the story of how lazy/dumb/thoughtless PR types can be when he forwards a journalist request and gets mostly lame and irrelevant replies. His conclusion:

Is this what the agencies are teaching their employees to do?

If it is, reporters have every right to hate public relations professionals.

We’re not doing our job.

At best, we’re an industry that relies on hope, and not skill, on the off chance that we’ll catch a break.

We’ve become an industry of posers, hoping that we’ll get through another day without being exposed as a fraud.

Peter’s response to this industry-wide problem was to set up a Facebook group. Now that’s gotten too large he’s set up a website and list, to which PR and industry types can subscribe. Peter will post journalist queries to the list. He tags on an excellent proviso: 

By joining this list, just promise me and yourself that you’ll ask yourself before you send a response: Is this response really on target? Is this response really going to help the journalist, or is this just a BS way for me to get my client in front of the reporter? If you have to think for more than three seconds, chances are, you shouldn’t send the response.

It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out. Sadly, I suspect many PR types don’t really care about relevance or blowing it with a reporter by making an irrelevant pitch; they just want to be able to add another number to their report. As Phil Gomes of Edelman points out, ProfNet owns this field but their usefulness has dropped off in recent years. There’s plenty of room for more and better players. 

(Vaguely related vent: I got another one of those emails with a subject line “May I call you on this?” this morning. How useful is that? Does it give me any idea of whether it’s relevant and interesting to me? That I now have to read the contents of the email to get a clue isn’t going to endear me to you. That you are so keen to phone me tells me you’re a high maintenance PR contact I don’t want to waste time with. I take great joy in sending an empty email with the subject line “No” to these emails. And I add their domain to my “PR spam” filter. I know, it’s harsh, but life’s too short.) 

The home of Peter Shankman – Shankman.com

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The New Newswire: a Dutch Student Called Michael

Twitter is now a news service in its own right. ReadWrite Web, an excellent website dedicated to Web 2.0 stuff, points out that the recent earthquake in England–not that unusual in itself, apparently, but rarely actually strong enough to be felt by humans—was reported first by Twitterers and by a Twitter-only news service called BreakingNewsOn (www.twitter.com/BreakingNewsOn): 

This story broke over Twitter in the past half hour, and nothing is up yet on the BBC sites, the Guardian, or the Telegraph. This story is breaking live on Twitter.

Looking at the situation a few hours later, it’s certainly true that mainstream websites have been a bit slow with the story. From what I can gather, the timeline is something like this (all times are in GMT):

Quake hits south of Grimsby 00:56  
First tweets 00:57  
BreakingNewsOn 00:59 (“Unconfirmed reports of earthquake in London”)
BreakingNewsOn 01:01 (“Reports of earthquake, working to confirm”, followed by lots of tweets)
BreakingNewsOn 01:10 (confirmation from European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre)
Dow Jones Newswires 01:29 (quotes BBC report)
Associated Press 01:30 (garbled alert)
Reuters 01:36 (“Quake shakes Britain, no casualties reported”)
AFP 01:45 (“Moderate quake shakes Britain”)
BBC twitter feed 01:56 (“Tremors felt across England”)

There may be some holes in here: I don’t have the exact time when the BBC website first carried the story, but I’m guessing it’s a few minutes before the wires. And this is not the first BreakingNewsOn has been ahead: It was, according to some reports, first on the Benazir Bhutto assassination, although I’ve not been able to confirm that. 

So who or what is BreakingNewsOn, and how does it scoop the big guys on their own turf? The service is actually pretty much one guy, a 20-year old Dutch student called Michael van Poppel, according to this interview by Shashi Bellamkonda. He is a news junkie, and makes money from it too, doing something called web-trawling—searching the net for stuff he can sell to the big players. (He was the guy who last September dug up a videotape of Osama bin Laden, which he then sold to Reuters.) 

Van Poppel works with a couple of other people and is clearly experienced and voracious in hoovering up web content. But it’s also about citizen journalism, crowd sourcing, whatever you want to call it: in the case of the UK quake, the first alerts actually came from witnesses, who twittered about the jolts they felt; it was BreakingNewsOn’s skill in harvesting that information, and staying sufficiently close to its readers for them to think to share their experience, that led to the fast turnaround. 

Of course, there’s much about this that is new. Everyone is now a reporter, if they find themselves in the middle of news. And everyone can be a media publisher: In this case it’s one 20-year old student with a twitter feed and an Internet-connected computer. And, finally, everyone can now subscribe to that once holiest-of-holies: a newswire service that updates in real time. Only now it’s not called a Reuters terminal or a Bloomberg but Twitter. 

But behind that, not much has changed. I’ve covered a few quakes in my time, and it’s all about finding the stuff out quickly by getting it out quickly. Nothing much has changed. No one was injured or killed, and it sounds like there was no falling masonry or damage to buildings. But that’s no excuse: earthquakes are news, and especially if they’re the strongest in the country for more than two decades

Twitter is perfectly suited for breaking news, because it’s all about short pithy sentences and updates. As ReadWrite Web points out, during the California wildfires last year, Twitter and other citizen journalism tools were used by people on the ground, scooping the mainstream press. And all this offers some lessons for the mainstream press that it would be wise to absorb: 

  • Mainstream media cannot afford to be slow off the mark on stories like this, since their value to high-paying subscribers is intimately tied to their speed;
  • Alert streams are no longer the province of market traders;
  • Traditional media needs to find a way to work with these new sources of news, or else find a way to add value that such services cannot. In this case it could have been finding a way to reflect in the headlines the unusual nature of this event;
  • Traditional media has to both monitor these new sources of news–the tweets from ordinary folk surprised to be shaken awake by a tremor—and work with them to ensure that they, too, benefit.

Some might say that what van Poppel does isn’t news. I’d contest that. He did everything right in reporting the story: it’s big enough an event to merit an “unconfirmed” snap, a quick follow-up which contains what we old newshounds would call an advisory letting subscribers know what he’s doing and to expect more. When he got confirmation he put out, all within 10 minutes. That’s a time-tested, old-fashioned and reasonable news approach. He leveraged the new media, but he showed an understanding of news values and what his readers needed. 

Kudos to him. We all could learn a lesson.

(An extended version of this post is available for publication to newsprint media as part of the Loose Wire Service. More details here, or email Jeremy Wagstaff directly.)

What’s Up With My Data, Doc?

I can’t find the original article on the IHT website, but there’s a great piece in today’s edition on how pharmaceutical companies push their drugs by funding — I would say bribing — doctors. It’s written by Daniel Carlat, who writes a blog and publishes the Carlat Psychiatry Report.

The most interesting part of the piece is on something called prescription data-mining, where data from pharmacists on prescriptions — what patients are given what medicines — are linked to the doctors prescribing said medicines. This allows pharmaceutical companies to target doctors and get them to push their drugs by paying them to make presentations to other doctors.

Carlat himself made $30,000 in a year doing this before he saw the light. He is now a major critic of the practice, and challenges in a recent blog post the absurd industry defense of the practice of prescription data-mining that it’s all about transparency:

Today, however (on a tip from PharmaGossip), I read the most absurd argument in its defense yet, reported in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer. The reporter, Karl Stark, quoted Jody Fisher, Verispan’s vice president of product management, as saying: “Doctors are trying to create a special right of privacy. I can certainly appreciate where they’re coming from. But the way the world is going is toward increased transparency of information.”

“Transparency of information”! What a wonderful Web 2.0 buzz phrase!

Of course, I’m interested because you can see in it the power of data-mining. The original pharmacist data doesn’t include the doctors’ names, only their Drug Enforcement Agency registration numbers. It’s the American Medical Association that effectively reveals the doctors’ names to Big Pharma by licensing its file of U.S. physicians, allowing data-mining companies like IMS Health and Verispan to match the numbers with the names, Carlat writes in today’s IHT piece. The AMA makes millions of dollars in this process, by the way.

Are similar things being done with our Internet-based data? Is the anonymous becoming less anonymous? If it’s not being done now, assume it will be in the future. It’s a great example of how data aren’t always valuable until they’re linked to other data, and then they’re extremely valuable.

The Carlat Psychiatry Blog: September 2007

The Puppy Love Scam

The scam emails offer a Yorkshire Terrier dog for adoption

A few weeks back I wrote about love scams (“You Give Love a Bad Name,” WSJ.com) — how scammers are trawling online dating sites looking for suckers. What interested me about the scam is that in some cases the scammers play a very patient game — luring the mark in over a period of months before any sting is attempted. 

Sophos, the antivirus people, say they have found a new twist on the same scam, where scammers are apparently luring folk by offering a puppy up for adoption:

The emails, which come from a husband and wife who claim to be on a Christian Mission in Africa say that their Yorkshire Terrier dog is not coping well in the hot weather.

Says Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant for Sophos:

“The criminals are offering the pet puppy in an attempt to gather information from kind-hearted people who jump in to help. If you respond the scammers will try and steal confidential information about you, or sting you for cash. If you fall for a trick like this you’ll be the one ending up in the doghouse.”

Actually this is not quite new and not completely accurate. The LA Times wrote back in May about how the scam works:

People who responded to the ads eventually were asked to send hundreds of dollars to cover expenses such as shipping, customs, taxes and inoculations on an ever-escalating scale.

Some reported paying fees totaling more $1,500.

A piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last week said the scam had been going across America for a year and points out that a Google search for “Nigerian Puppy Scam” turns up more than 200,000 “hits.” (I must confess I found only 16,000.) Bulldogs and Yorkshire Terriers are favorites. The paper was apparently alerted to the scam when ads were found to be running in its own paper. A month earlier the Toronto Star reported that a local woman had parted with $500 for a 11-week old terrier, after responding to an ad on a free local classified site and complying with requests for three payments to ship the dog from Nigeria. (A reporter called up the scammer, who uttered the immortal scammer’s words:

“Are you trying to call me a scam? I’m a family man,” he said. “I am a man of God. I am a missionary.”

For more detail on scams and how to spot them, check out this page on the IPATA website.

Dogs work because we love them, and are suckers for the sob story. What’s interesting here — and why these scams are in some ways more dangerous — is that the scam does not play upon people’s greed at all, but instead upon their charity and sense of decency.

Two conclusions from this:

  • These scams are aimed at throwing a wider, and slightly different, net to the old scams. The victims are going to be people who are moral, not greedy.
  • Chances are the scammers are aiming at making less money from these scams, but perhaps make up for it in volume. Perhaps the days are over when scammer aimed to make five-figure sums.

Puppy offered for adoption by Nigerian email scammers

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Beginning of the End of TV as We Know It?

Noddy does a noddy shot (photo from five.tv)

The Guardian reports that Alan Yentob, the BBC’s creative director, has performed “noddy shots” on TV interviews that he did not personally conduct for his arts series Imagine.

Noddy shots, in case you don’t know, are those silly cutaways to the interviewer reacting, or not reacting, to the interviewee. In most cases they’re faked — recorded after the interview is over — although this is the first time I’ve heard someone allegedly reacting to someone he hasn’t even interviewed. This probably doesn’t represent a TV first, but it certainly marks the beginning of the end for a lot of hackneyed, silly and anachronistic TV stunts.

The Guardian quotes a BBC source as saying Yentob “often does not conduct all the interviews on Imagine – even though he appears nodding or reacting to them… [S]cenes featuring Mr Yentob reacting to some of the more peripheral figures and experts featured in his programmes were edited in even though he was not actually present. Editing work on the programme later gave the impression that he was present.”

Interestingly, the BBC source “robustly” defends the technique as standard:

“Everybody does it – it is a universal technique,” he said. “The important point is to ask – does this change the meaning of what you are doing and the answer is no it does not.

“If you had everybody who did interviews featured in them you would have have 11 or 12 people nodding at different times which is getting into the realms of the ludicrous. This is standard practice across the industry.”

Er, surely that’s not the point? Surely the point is that the interviewer is pretending to be somewhere he’s not? Surely the viewer is entitled to assume, from the shots of someone nodding/shaking head/looking skeptical/sympathetic/bored/aghast, that they’re actually in the room, presumably facing and listening the person they’re reacting to?

Another channel, Channel Five, the Guardian says. has already banned some of what it calls “rather hackneyed tricks” in its bulletins. Among these are the staged questions (sometimes called reverse questions), where the interviewer is filmed asking questions of the interviewee, usually to an empty chair long after the interviewee has left the building. The BBC Newsnight program has already banned introductory ‘walking shots’ in which a reporter and interviewee are shown walking before a cut to the interview.

I hate these shots too; they look so lame and you can’t help but ponder what they’re really saying when they’re walking along:

“So how much am I getting for this interview?”

“Fancy coming back to my place after this?”

“Please walk a bit more quickly. I’ve got to go record some noddies for 16 interviews I wasn’t there for.”

Frankly I also hate the shots of cameramen or photographers, called cutaways if I recall correctly, which are done to break between the subject — Putin, say — doing different things but not actually moving between them. Putin speaks at press conference and then cuts ribbon on new nuclear bomb shelter, say, would look weird, supposedly, if the viewer didn’t see something in between. So the hapless editor splices in some tape of a cameraman squinting into his camera. Pointless.

The serious point here is this: Sadly this is related to a serious decline in UK TV’s credibility. As such it represents a somewhat weak response; TV news needs to look deeper into its soul to find a way back. It might start with the wider changes wrought on the media by the Web and consider how it’s going to find a new role for itself.

Dropping noddies, fake or real, is a small step. But the biggest one is going to be going back to what was great (and is great, in shows like Newsnight) about TV journalism: well-researched, well-funded, well-shot, well-produced, fearless and ground-breaking stories about stuff we care about.

BBC’s Alan Yentob in ‘noddy’ controversy | Media | MediaGuardian.co.uk

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