PR execs: train your clients!

Today I’m annoyed. I’ve had two pieces I was writing fall through on me and all because the PR people were themselves let down. Or were they? My guess is that they hadn’t taken the trouble to train their clients.

Guys, you’re called a PR “consultant” and the “consultant” bit is very important.

Here’s the scenario. I sent out a request to contacts for case study candidates on a particular subject on which I’m writing for Professional Outsourcing, which I edit. I made it clear that the involvement of the user was essential – nobody is interested in an article that says “the vendor of the solution to the problem thought it was very good”. I need to speak to the user company, the manager.

Someone came up with what sounded like the ideal candidate. I said yes please last Tuesday. On Friday the PR person came back to me and said the end customer had decided not to talk to the press. So I moved on to choice B – still an excellent example of how to make this particular technology work.

And the second PR person came back to me and said sorry, the client has decided not to speak to anyone about it.

Why get in touch?

Now, nobody appreciates more than me that some things are not possible. People have scheduling conflicts, people don’t want to co-operate, people have had a bad experience with the press in the past. I understand all of that.

I’d love to know, though, why someone would write a release without the knowledge that the client would at least be speaking to people. The answer is probably simple: because the vendor in these cases is the PR person’s client, and they’re insisting a release be sent out.

So I get back to the “consultancy” part of the equation. A good PR person will know the press. They will understand that I’m not going to write anything without comment from both sides, so if the end client won’t speak to the press it’s a dead story. And this good PR person will be brave enough to tell their client this is not going to work.

So many people seem not to bother – but if you know your story lacks the basic building blocks, such as “availability of the key spokespeople”, why bother sending it?

Does your client need to be persuaded that journalists won’t let them check copy, won’t necessarily put a link to the landing page they want and that we need a proper interview rather than cut and pasted prefabricated quotes? They often take this better from a journalist than from their PR people – get me in for a media training session – pop your details down below and we’ll talk.

Speaking out loud

Today I’ve been having fun. It started when I picked up a copy of the Times and checked the supplement on collaboration, published by Raconteur. I have two articles in this, and although I’ve been a journalist for 25 years I still get a kick out of that. Look, stop staring.

The other fun thing has been a video shoot. Video shoots are becoming increasingly popular because the hard copy newspaper and magazine is no longer the dominant form – or it won’t be soon. And once you’re on a phone, tablet or computer, you’re no longer wedded to the written word only.

So I’ve recorded six brief pieces to camera for Computer Business Review, for which I’ve been given the title “Contributing Editor” for the New Style of IT hub, sponsored by HP. They’re little more than video blogs, drawing from recent news items. I’ve also done video interviews for them – a screen grab is above. I’ll be in shot initially on the new vids, then fade to voiceover.

Some stuff I’ve learned about video work is:

  • I get up in the morning, think I look terrible if I’m supposed to be filming, I apply more moisturiser, still think I look dreadful, and nobody notices. This must mean I look like this all the time.
  • I don’t do stereotypes but it’s always the woman in the room who notices my tie isn’t straight.
  • If you decide to do “tieless” (see above) you run the risk of undoing one button too many and looking like a faded 1980s rock star but without the glittering career behind you.

More seriously there are some practical points:

  • If you’re doing a set of videos for uploading at different times, remember to take subtle changes of outfits – nothing major, your hair won’t change length so anyone who wants to check whether they were all filmed at the same time can do so. Today I recorded six videos using two jackets and three ties, for example – just enough so they don’t look too identikit.
  • Always use a professional crew when you can. Today I was working with 7 Storey Media, the video on my journalism page was shot by Jeremy Nicholas (and for what it’s worth the photo at the header of my pages is from Will White). Each has been a pleasure and I’d recommend them without hesitation. They know the bits I don’t about pictures and composition.
  • Upload the videos to a place that’s good for sharing. Professional Outsourcing Magazine uses Vimeo, and you can see I’ve shared a video from this on my journalism page. Computer Business Review uses something else and in spite of entering my WordPress username and password constantly, it won’t let me do any more than share a still as I’ve done at the top of this post.

Do you use video on your website or publication? If you don’t, it’s probably about time to start thinking about it. If I can help you as a presenter, voiceover or with scripting for videos, do drop me a note by clicking here and I’ll look forward to working with you. If you’d rather leave your details below, feel free to use the form.


Magazines: what’s the deal?

I edit a magazine, Professional Outsourcing. I also edit, from time to time, supplements for the New Statesman. These share something in common: we very frequently use contributions from people whose day job isn’t journalism. And I’m guilty of forgetting, from time to time, that not everybody is going to know the “rules”. So in case you or a client are ever in that position, here are some thoughts based on mistakes I’ve seen people making.

  • A magazine is probably not a professional document. There are exceptions. The Lancet, Hansard, no doubt others are, but most magazines are going to be written with consumers in mind. Even if they’re intended for a professional audience the editor will anticipate that they’re going to be read in the lunch break, or on the commute. So if you’re writing for a magazine, remember to relax the language a little – and if someone is writing a piece on your behalf, don’t be at all surprised if it doesn’t look like something from your internal knowledge base. (Side note: this applies to any written quotes you might supply – I’ve agreed to accept written quotes before and been faced with a 700-word screed for a 1000 word article – nobody is going to use a quote that long!)
  • A magazine isn’t an extension of your marketing department. This means an editor will take what you’ve written and manipulate it to serve the readers best. This is in everybody’s interests but it does mean that the editor might well tone down some of the hype in your piece, if you’ve put any in. If you’ve written well and authoritatively, this won’t matter, the article will still serve you well.
  • A related point is that editors are aware they’re working in a visual medium but they may not have a good visual sense. I don’t believe mine is particularly strong and I’m pleased to have the backing of a superb designer, Leon Parks, for both the outsourcing mag and the NS (plus a proofreader, Louise Bolotin, who is better at micro-editing than I am). One result of this is that we tend to regard the written side of an article as entirely separate from the illustrations – so if you had a particular slide, or graph, you believed was central to your piece, do draw it to our attention. If the article stands up in its own right – and a well-written article will – we’re likely to leave the visuals in the hands of the designers, whose job is to make it as arresting as possible. This doesn’t always chime with the writer’s intention.
  • Be prepared for us to edit. I’ve had two incidents that clash with this idea recently; on one occasion a writer took it badly that a chart had vanished (see above). The other was when a client for a sponsored supplement of a magazine did most of the commissioning himself. I’ve no doubt he was trying to save me time – but that couple of weeks when you don’t know what’s coming in and haven’t seen the brief (hello, I’m supposed to be editing this!) can be pretty nerve-wracking.
  • Finally, a deadline’s a deadline and an agreed length is an agreed length. If you can’t commit to delivering 2000 words within three weeks, don’t commit at all, that’s not a problem. Whatever you do, don’t deliver 700 words after four weeks and assume that will be OK. I’ve actually had this happen and the writer didn’t see a problem (note: you can edit down but rarely up – or at least not to that extent).

Do you need help writing for the press or engaging with us in interviews? Drop me a note by clicking here or fill in the form below and we’ll talk.

Check your quotes

Quotes are tricky things in the press. Not when someone is quoting you, of course; that’s what we journalists do for a living and you need to make sure you say the right things. We may not allow you to check your words afterwards.

No, on this occasion I’m talking about using other people’s quotes to add some weight. The Sunday Times had a piece yesterday on students using them to start off their applications. I’ve seen loads of them on Facebook (try joining a speaking society and watch your timeline fill with inane quotes that someone thinks are impressive because they’re against a coloured background or in italics or something) and increasingly, they’re in press announcements.

This means you end up presenting them to journalists. I can think of three reasons not to put them in.

  • The first is actually pleasant and non-cynical – so enjoy this while it lasts. Put simply, if you have something to say about something, I want to hear it. I don’t want to hear what Shakespeare said about competition in the smartphone market, I don’t need to be dazzled with your knowledge of Disraeli and how you can prove what he’d have thought of the competition. I want your view. I will listen and I may well quote it. That would be in your words, not someone else’s.
  • Back in the world of journalists, we’re a cynical bunch and sometimes, when we’re in the mood, we’ll have those platitudes for breakfast. We’ve heard them before and we’re quite likely to assume you’re using them because you have nothing else to say, no matter how wrong this impression may be. You use them to add weight, to us it does exactly the reverse. Oh, and equally importantly…
  • We can check up on them. With our smartphones, on the spot. “Be the change you want to see in the world,” you say on a slide, attributing it to Gandhi. Except we can check and find that this wasn’t attributed to him until long after his death. Someone committed to democracy might well quote “I disagree with what you say but I would die for your right to say it” – and attribute it to Voltaire, except a quick check on Google will tell you that he didn’t say that either.

So, go on, be brave. Think of the mot juste, the pithy quote you’re sure you’ve heard from somewhere and you reckon you know who said it…and then leave it out. Honestly, we’d much rather hear from you. It might not sound as distinctive but it will certainly be original.

Do you need help with your press engagement? Click here to drop me an email or fill in the form below to leave a message.

When did trailers become news?

Above you’ll see I’ve linked to the trailer for the new Bond film, Spectre. It’s due out this year and I’m looking forward to it.

This isn’t a movie blog, though, it’s a media blog – so I thought, rather than offer advice, for once I’d come out and say I’m flummoxed. The BBC runs a roundup of the newspapers and the fact that 007 has a new trailer has, in one form or another, hit four of the UK’s front pages today.

Let’s run that again. A movie that everyone knew was in production and scheduled for release this year (let’s take it that “everyone” means “everyone who’s interested” in this case), and which has already been teaser-trailed in cinemas and online, releases a scheduled, deliberately promotional trailer.

So far, so completely legit. If I were a Sony shareholder I’d be horrified if they weren’t trailing the release of this one like anything, it’ll have to compete with Star Wars, for goodness’ sake, and that’s now got Disney behind it.


I thought the front pages of newspapers were for showing off actual news (or offers or promotions, depending on the paper). I can certainly see something creating an online buzz like this as an inside-page filler, but I prefer to see something unexpected on the splash pages. Oddly it’s not just the popular press – the Mail doesn’t report it on its front page but the Times does.

Obviously you’ve got to sell papers. Anyone can appreciate that. But selling them on the strength of something that’s taken some effort to find out rather than something a commercial machine has spoon-fed a publicity machine would be good.

You’re unlikely to be as lucky in getting a manufactured, press released story onto the front page of the nationals – if you need help crafting your stories or interacting with the press, have a look at my media training offering.

Ashley Madison and other crisis management

A couple of months ago I was media training someone who thought their company may at some stage face a crisis. They were a respectable business and since my sessions are confidential I’m not going to use them as an example.

It certainly wasn’t Ashley Madison – the dating site for people who are already married – whose database has been hacked and its members’ data compromised. There will be a lot of people sniggering at the thought of unfaithful people getting caught out, having their details published or their credit cards compromised.

Rationally it’s not funny. If their partners found out and gave them marching orders, fair enough – but whatever your moral standpoint, the company was doing nothing illegal and the members had their right to privacy. Oh, and their partners are going to be just as badly hit by any misappropriation of their funds.

So, if I were advising Ashley Madison – or if your company were to face a crisis – what would I advise?

Have a plan

The first step is: don’t wait for something to go wrong. Assume it will and have a plan, and have a couple of dry runs. Then if nothing ever goes wrong there’s no harm done and if it does you’re not taken by surprise.

Some second steps would be as follows:

  • Prepare a statement. Put it on the website for everyone to see. Direct people to the statement, particularly journalists – we won’t like it but it’s stronger than “no comment”.
  • Make sure the statement says something that sounds humble. Ashley Madison now and others who’ve been hacked in the past might feel like saying “it’s because hackers are scumbags” but it won’t help. “We take our clients’ security seriously and are doing all we can to safeguard their details” is better.
  • Ensure that your colleagues know who’s authorised to talk to the press and who isn’t. Make sure they are aware that there are consequences for unauthorised people talking to journalists.
  • No matter how unjust you think the crisis is, or how much you feel the journalist is needling you and holding you responsible (because you happen to be the person in front of them), don’t get angry. Stay calm.
  • Confirm facts where you can. Don’t confirm or fuel speculation. As a journalist I might say to Ashley Madison “Surely people might find someone has maxed out their credit card and their partner doesn’t know – this could end a relationship”. We both know that’s technically correct but don’t agree – say “At this stage all we know is that X amount of personal data has been compromised. We are watching the situation carefully and doing everything we can to help.” And something about how your main concern is for your clients’ confidentiality.
  • Watch social media. Respond where appropriate in a measured way – and accept that in this case you’re going to be the butt of a few jokes and a fair bit of sangfroid from people who think you’ve got a dose of what you deserved.
  • Have a crisis management team in place if at all possible.

…and of course hire a journalist in advance to put you through your paces, practice your responses, in your office or in a TV or radio studio if possible. I can provide all of that – email me for details or fill in the contact form below.

From senior UK journalist Guy Clapperton

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