Category Archives: media training

Stick to the deadline

I once attended a dinner of CEOs and chief technology officers. They were talking about tight deadlines and how people had to understand in a modern world that they couldn’t be broken. Then during the dinner the guy sitting next to me leaned over and said “mind you, if you want to talk to someone really strict about deadlines, you talk to a journalist”. Proof, if any were needed, that he’d completely forgotten who I was.

Journalists do have a reputation for being fierce about deadlines. There are actually good reasons – it’s worth considering the process of what happens after an article reaches us, if you’re an executive or PR person writing something for a magazine.

Errors and assumptions

There seems to be an air of “we can probably move this if we want to” around contributors to magazines for which I’ve worked. Here are some examples:

• I commissioned some items for the Radio Times once – and a famous conductor missed the deadline by a day and decided that meant he probably didn’t have to write the piece after all. We had of course reserved the space.

• A contributor to a magazine once assumed that he could write something the day after it came out and it would appear on the website, no harm done. We had of course reserved a space and were left scrambling around to fill it.

• A sponsor for an entire supplement once decided to commission the articles himself (fine, I’ll charge you anyway but I’d leave it to a professional if I were you). The supplement was due to appear the week he’d set everyone as a deadline. This gave no opportunity for any other process to happen…including printing the thing.

The process

If you or your client are approached to contribute to a publication, or pitch to a publication and succeed, great. Here’s what happens afterwards – and this happens on smaller as well as larger publications.

First the editor will have a read of the piece you’ve written. If it’s not to length and on topic you can expect us to send it straight back. This sounds like common sense but a lot of people get it completely wrong.

Second, he or she will pass it to the subs to massage into house style (so ‘is a number written 1 or one’, ‘are companies singular or plural’ become important questions). This is non-negotiable; if you’re lucky enough to see it again after this stage, do not send it back with red biro amending your job title back into capital letters. I’ve actually seen this and other than the editorial team having a chuckle it doesn’t achieve much. Remember your article is not the only one being subbed. So expecting this to take less than a couple of days is unrealistic.

Third, the layouts will happen. Again, this is in the context of an entire magazine rather than just your pages – allow days again. Several designers work on more than one magazine simultaneously so there can be quite a queue.

Fourth, the layouts go back to the editorial team. Unless you are stunningly lucky, your piece will need trimming or expanding to fit the space exactly. No, we won’t change the font size to fit. We’ll also add a headline – the one you sent might give us a steer on the tone to adopt but the chances of it fitting properly on the page and matching our style are remote (ask yourself whether the publication for which you’re writing always has a verb in the headline – the people making the magazine will know).

Fifth, if you’re very lucky, there might be time to send it back to you for a quick once-over. This isn’t a cue to start rewriting entire paragraphs, it fits and we’re looking for tweaks unless we’ve amended something to fit and misunderstood the meaning entirely.

Sixth, the designer changes it to PDF and we proofread it.

Seventh, it goes to the printer in the case of a hard copy publication, or it may go straight online in the digital world. If it’s going into print, then it will take about a week – not only do we have to sign off the galley proofs (as those of us of a certain age still call them; it may be called a Delano system officially but to me the last pre-print stage is a galley proof) individually, page by page, then they’re printed. The ink literally has to take a day to dry and then the issue is assembled and delivered.

So this is why, when you’ve agreed to contribute to a magazine, we’re a bit precious about our deadlines. It’s because we understand the chaos that ensues when they’re overlooked. Of course, neither you nor your clients work for us, so this doesn’t have to be part of your world. But do yourself a favour; if you can’t honour a commitment to write on time and on length, don’t make it in the first place. The next time you come across us might be when we’re interviewing you about an important announcement, and you really don’t want us having “that’s the pillock that doesn’t keep his or her word” at the back of our mind at the time.

Watch where you’re pitching

So last week I get this pitch – it’s an infographic about…actually it wouldn’t be fair to identify the person who sent it, it’s just an infographic and it concerns a technology issue. The covering note says the PR executive thought it might work for my blog.

Nice though it would be to think that this blog is getting noticed, it would be a completely  wrong thing for me to include so I disregard it. My best guess is that many people have had a similar note because we’re on a list of technology journalists. That is of course fine and respectable.

Then this morning I get the follow-up note to ask whether it’s any use for my blog. I reply and explain I’m not sure which blog she means. “Your technology blog”, comes the response.

Pitch to something that exists

I’m racking my brain here trying to think of anything at all I write that could be construed a technology blog. Let’s discount anything that’s been dead (or which someone else has taken over) for a year or more; this is a paid, professional PR person and part of her job is to keep up to date with who’s doing what.

So I can confirm here: I do not and have not recently written a technology blog at all. You can pitch what you want at it, since it doesn’t exist I’m positive it will do you no good.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been aware of people pitching to nonexistent publications. A colleague of mine used to work on a magazine that closed down. She had a call from a PR person asking whether she’d be able to include the case of wine she’d just sent by courier (which my colleague hadn’t received). No, she replied, the magazine has closed. “But I’ve sent the wine now!” came the angry response; fascinating, said my colleague, where did you send it, since we no longer have an office?

Again, for several years I was associated with a section in the Guardian called “Small Business Solutions” (then “Business Solutions”, then “Business Sense”, but it remained focused on the small business market). I didn’t edit it, but was in it so often a number of people got the impression I did, so they sent me pitches. More than once I had a pitch offering me a new director of a small business client for the “people page”.

You know what’s coming next. I worked on that supplement for nine years and we never, literally never, had a people page.

Do your research

Here’s now it works. PR people pitch ideas to journalists and whatever some hacks tell you about resisting the approach and getting sucked into the PR machine, we need it. Without ideas and fresh input we dry up, it’s as simple as that. So however reluctant or damned rude some journalists are, they need you but we do get a lot of pitches so they need to be sharp.

And one way you can sharpen them better than some of the competition – and as you’ll have gathered this was true as of this morning – is to make sure you’re pitching to a publication or part thereof that actually exists. This is fundamental market research. Yes, the amount of blogs out there makes it difficult to keep track of us all but there are press agencies out there which specialise in this sort of monitoring. It’s part of the PR job, and if you went into it voluntarily then it’s reasonable to expect you to make the effort.

Overall the quality of pitch from PR people has shot up in the 26 years I’ve been a journalist. But the schoolchild errors are still being made – and failing to check that your target publication actually exists is probably the worst.

For information on Guy Clapperton’s media training sessions please click here.