Category Archives: pr

I don’t work for you

As you’ll see from the pic, I’m working away from home today – once a week I try to work at the IoD, of which I’m a member. I can do this because I’m self-employed. In other words I work for myself, or more realistically for a series of clients; what I don’t do generally is to work for the people I’m interviewing.

This can come as a surprise to some of them. A while ago I explained why I won’t show people my copy in advance (and nor should any journalist); some of the expectation that people should be able to do just that appears to come from the belief that we as journalists are part of an overall marketing machine.

Movies are the worst

There was an incident just recently in which director Quentin Tarantino threw a bit of a wobbly in a Channel 4 News interview because they were asking questions he didn’t like and this was supposed to be, he believed, an advertisement for his movie.

Uh-uh. No it’s not. It’s independent journalism.

It gets worse when a handful – a minority, I suggest – of PR people fail to manage expectations. Someone must have advised Tarantino to expect an advert for his film; it wouldn’t have been a journalist and particularly not one from Channel 4 News. And yet it’s mostly the hack that gets it in the neck when things are perceived to have gone “wrong” in this way. It’s a free country, we’re allowed to ask what we want, and yet we still get people thinking they can prohibit certain areas. Of course you’re free not to answer, that’s as much your right as it’s ours to ask.

It can be useful to learn a few bridging phrases:

“That’s not a point of view I hear from my customers. What they’re saying is…”

“Our experience actually reflects something different…”

Or in Tarantino’s case, “What really matters is what the public thinks of the movie, and so far reception has been good…” would have been pretty unarguable.

Instead, the suggestion that we’re doing something wrong in not acting as an extension of someone’s marketing department gets in the way and people feel we’re being obstructive when actually we’re just doing our job.

I’ll finish with a truly awful example of someone who thinks it’s their interview rather than an independent event in which the journalist can ask what they like. Again, it’s from Channel 4 News; consider what a bridging phrase or reference to the packed premises full of happy customers might have achieved. For information on my media training offering, click here after wincing at the video.

How did Miliband repeat himself like this?

Have a look at the video above. It’s only a couple of minutes long. It’s Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, repeating himself and making the same point over and over again.

I show this to media training candidates and ask them what’s going on. Sometimes they respond: Miliband is an idiot.

So let’s leave party politics at the door for a moment. Let’s just assume the likelihood is that after May we will have one of two possible people as Prime Minister, and one of them is in the clip above. Even if he loses, becoming the second-likeliest Prime Minister after May isn’t something you achieve by being thick.

So what really happened? I wasn’t there but I can guess.

Find out about the interview

One excellent piece of advice I’ve heard a number of times is that people should find out about how a broadcast interview they give will be used. Ask the journalist: will you be using just my best quote or will you be putting everything out there, the full three minutes?

If it’s “just the best” then the standard advice is, no matter what the question, get your key messages out there.

This, I suspect, is what Miliband and his advisors were told before the above interview took place. So he’s dutifully brought every answer around to his central point; the strikes are wrong when talks are ongoing but the Government has behaved irresponsibly (disagree if you wish, but he’s expressing his view well).

The problem – and the refinement I’d add – is that someone, somewhere, will have a copy of all the repetitious responses and has the power to make you look (technical term coming up) a muppet. This is what someone’s done to Miliband above; according to some of the labels on YouTube it appeared in this form on Charlie Brooker’s Screen Wipe, a comedy/satire programme. They’ve just shown the unedited version with all of the identikit answers, and it looks absurd.

So what can you do to avoid this? In the context of a comedy programme Miliband still looks a fool; decontextualised he looks even more so. I’ve seen this circulated on social media without any reference to the comedy programme by people who genuinely get the impression that Miliband doesn’t realise he’s repeating himself. Don’t let this happen to you.

My suggestion to my media training candidates is that they answer the question. Prepare more than one message you need to get into an interview and push different ones. Respond to the questions rather than use them as cues for your spiel. They’ll naturally be different. You can still make your point.

You should end up with your message getting out there just as you’d hoped, but if someone gets hold of the unedited version then hopefully you won’t look quite as absurd as Mr. Miliband does in the clip.

It’s not his fault. He’s been manipulated for comic effect. However, by varying your responses, you can ensure the same thing doesn’t happen to you.

Details of Guy Clapperton’s media training course can be found by clicking here.

Pitching: it’s not about you (or your client)

I had a fine afternoon media training yesterday and in one of the exercises the PR team pitched their event to me. The idea was that they needed to get journalists to their show in another country, so they tried their real live pitches on me. Some were pretty good.

They all had the content. They told me about:

  • Speakers
  • Previous successes of the event
  • Other contacts in the audience

So, so far, so good. Except I would never have attended in a zillion years.

It’s not about ego, but…

If you’re talking to journalists, you need to be talking to us about our readers. Before we do anything at all we need to know there will be something in it for them, or else there will be no point in engaging.

Think of it as a headline and some bullet points. If your headline is “we think our event will be really interesting” then great, I hope you do – if you don’t, nobody else will. It won’t engage my attention, though, and I’m unlikely to attend. Massage that slightly to “your magazine covers X subject and there will be exclusive content at my event” and I’m slightly interested. Add “Your readers have shown interest in such and such a topic and the world specialist will be speaking exclusively for us” and I’ve gone past “interested” and am bordering on “fascinated”.

Then you introduce the detail. Who exactly will be there, what they’ll be speaking about and above all whether I can get some time with them away from other hacks – I’m looking for an exclusive story rather than something everyone else has as well.

Then feed me some proof points. At last year’s event, company X succeeded in getting its first round of funding, so it’s a heavyweight event (this is a real example from yesterday’s pitch).

Journalists get swamped with requests for our time so “no thanks” is still the easiest default answer. However, structure your pitch around my readers rather than around what’s important to you, and it’s a lot more difficult for me to write off immediately.

Guy Clapperton’s media training offering can be found by clicking here.

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.