Media mistakes 5: If I send a journalist something it guarantees coverage

A while ago, sending journalists items to review was done pretty much willy-nilly. Nobody cared whether items came back or not. My first laptop was a “loan” from the then director of a hardware company (I soon got out of that culture in around 1995).

It became endemic, to the extent that some journalists still expect freebies to arrive. It happened to me a while ago; I was at a trade show, a PR person showed me a cheap Bluetooth speaker and asked me to make sure I took one away. I did so and was surprised when two months later he asked for it back – all of the exhibitors had been giving away promotional items and I’d assumed this was one of them, therefore thrown away the packaging. We’re fine now.

So rule number one is that if you’re giving samples out, make sure your terms are clear.

Rule two is probably not to send stuff out if it hasn’t been asked for. I had a cheap games console delivered just before Christmas. I had to go to the Post Office and queue for it as I was out when delivery was attempted. I didn’t then and don’t now review games equipment. It was pretty annoying.

Another time some PR people invited me to lunch. They gave me a voice recorder, a camera case, a couple of other items from their clients. I was a little taken back. Then on the way out they said “And you can even keep the camera case, but make sure you send us the rest back…” So let’s get this straight, I turn up for a briefing, get showered with a load of unwanted junk and then have to send it back at my own expense and in my own time? That’s fair enough if I ask for it, I’ll do so because I have a commission, but guess what…I gave the lot back on the spot. They were quite surprised.

Sending stuff is no guarantee

Almost as annoying is the follow-up call when you haven’t asked for something, or when you’ve agreed to “have a look”. This usually happens when someone has oversold the connection they’ve made to a journalist.

I attended a trade show once and one of the exhibitors was selling car kits for mobile phones. It also played music from the phone – it was pretty good. “And we’ll be happy to install one in your car”, they said, to all the journalists there. I was writing about in-car gadgets for the Guardian at the time and was therefore interested but a load of others just took it and ran. I wonder how much publicity or return on investment the company actually achieved.

In connection with the outsourcing magazine I edit, I’m often sent books to review. This is fine, please keep them coming – then I get calls from someone asking when the review is going to appear. This would be a review of an unsolicited book – which might well make the cut but might not – and I’m getting chased as if appearing in the magazine were a right. My guess is that the PR person had oversold the connection as I mentioned above – and had told the client I was reviewing the thing.

So, tips on sending stuff to journalists:

  1. If you need it back, and you’ve every right as it’s your property or that of your client, say so. If a journalist has to take time out of his or her day to get it back to you, don’t be surprised if we grumble a bit or ask you to send a courier.
  2. If we haven’t asked for it, we may not want it.
  3. Items sent for review, unless they have been requested specifically, should be considered “offered for consideration” – we may well regard them positively but put our backs up by taking coverage for granted and you might well end up with less coverage than you’d hoped.

Finally, do check the market. An old colleague had an editor who once fancied watching a particular box set, before these things were available online. She instructed her PA to put the call in to the PR people to have the set biked round and the PR people obliged. The thing is, the magazine didn’t run DVD reviews…you can imagine the tone of the client conversation after that.

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