Don’t let me ask this question

When I’m writing something for the press there’s a question I ask myself after every paragraph. That question is: “Why am I telling them this?”

If I can’t answer that question then I abandon the paragraph and start again. Frankly if I can’t see the point of a section of an article I can’t expect the readers to do it for me. And yet so many people don’t seem to worry; this is particularly true of some sections (by no means all) of the PR community.

If I’m reading your press release and wondering why you sent it to me, you’ve frankly lost me and I’m going to be hard to get back.

Reasons I may not be interested

There can be many reasons I won’t be interested in a particular release and many are easy to eliminate. Here are some of the more frequent offenders:

  • The poorly-targeted release: Just before Christmas I had a lavishly-illustrated press release on hand-designed-and-painted silk scarves for women. To the right journalist this had everything including images. To a business journalist writing about SMEs, Outsourcing and a number of related areas like me, it was of no interest whatsoever. The fact that someone has “journalist” in their job title doesn’t mean you can send them just any old thing.
  • The poorly-written press release: These are in the minority, fortunately. I still get the poorly-spelled and punctuated release from time to time and I try to rise above them. More seriously I receive releases in which the main point isn’t clear from the headline, the thrust of the release is buried in the third or fourth paragraph or the point of sending it in the first place just isn’t clear.
  • The release is of interest only to the stakeholders: A good PR person is a consultant as well as someone who just does the bidding of the client. So if you’re aiming to be a good consultant, please do tell your client that their new regional manager or their ten per cent uplift in sales is interesting mostly to the people working for them. Outside the business is anyone really going to care who heads up the sales team as long as they don’t cause a problem?
  • The release with no point: Sometimes I get sent a release that just tells me a client has an opinion on something. There is no effort to find out whether I might be writing about the topic in question, I’m just offered opinions. I suspect the client is standing over the hapless PR person insisting the release be sent; these releases fail the “why am I telling them this?” question immediately.

A lot of these issues are caused by clients who think that if they pay a PR person, coverage will follow immediately. They are compounded by the journalists moving about so much: yes, I get a lot of poorly targeted stuff but no, I wouldn’t particularly want the job of keeping tabs on all of the thousands of freelancers like me in the industry. We get commissions in the short term that might well leave us appearing to be specialists in something we’re not. That’s the job, though, and the PR community can’t afford to let itself off the hook because keeping track appears a bit difficult.

So before you send your next release out, ask why you’re telling the journalist this stuff. If you can’t answer, you might do well to redraft it a bit.

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Charlotte Proudman: what would you have done?

Charlotte Proudman went very public when faced with perceived sexism: what would you have done?

Many people will have seen the story about Charlotte Proudman, the solicitor who received a more than slightly OTT compliment about her LinkedIn picture from Alexander Carter-Silk, a lawyer old enough to be her father. She objected to the sexism, called him out on social media and is now at the centre of a media storm – with people threatening not to instruct her as a solicitor.

This isn’t the place to debate the rights and wrongs of Proudman’s actions, although I’m inclined to agree that Carter-Silk – someone only six years older than I am – took a distinctly creepy tone, no doubt unintentionally. Proudman has ended up at the centre of something of a media storm and has had hate Tweets as well as supportive ones. Leaving aside any personal standpoints on whether he over-egged it, whether he should have said anything about her appearance at all or whether she overreacted, let’s look at it in the abstract.

You receive a response to an attempt to connect on social media. The reply appears a little inappropriate and it’s not the first time. You’re aggrieved. What can you do?

Avoiding the media

Let’s assume that unlike Proudman you do mind being held up as an example in the media, onto which people will project their view without having met you. You do, however, want the issue publicised. Here’s how I’d recommend going about it.

  • Engage with the individual and his employer. Maybe even send the exact response Proudman wrote – but keep it private so that it doesn’t blow up in your face. His own employer might wish to take action.
  • Tell your own employer what you’re doing and why. If you’re aggrieved and have a half-way reasonable case, they should be supportive.

This should, you’d hope, cool his ardour a little (although since he’s apparently referred to his daughter’s picture as “hot” according to today’s reports, I do wonder).

Engaging the public

After this it’s worth looking at how you can raise the issue. This is where my suggestion would be to take Carter-Silk’s name out of it and publish a blog, a book, a magazine article, anything, just state what happened without pulling what might just be a cack-handed correspondent into it.

Approach the Huffington Post, the Independent, Guardian, Times, whoever. Tell the Everyday Sexism Project. Get a head of steam behind it, help publicise other people’s experiences too, but once it’s de-personalised there’s nowhere for the defensive people to go. I may be unrepresentative but if I see a story about a man who’s done something like this I think he’s an idiot; if I read about the issue without a specific individual attached I’m more inclined to ask myself whether I’m ever guilty of the same thing.

I’d be interested in other people’s views. It could be that my approach would generate less publicity – but it might result in less abuse and career damage for someone who just wanted to talk about work rather than her looks.

You’re unlikely to come across anything as extreme as the vitriol poured onto Charlotte Proudman’s head, but do you need help with media engagements? Drop me a line by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Sourcing stories – how it’s evolving

Journalism gets a lousy press sometimes. Given that we are the press this is ironic, but it’s the case. Even before it was uncovered that several of us were tapping into people’s mobile phone messages illegally, people assumed that we made stories up, intruded into people’s lives, named suspects of crimes before they were convicted and soforth.

So I thought it was worth laying out some of the rules we’re supposed to follow. If you or a client feel you’ve been treated other than properly according to any of this, you have a cause for complaint.

First, not every story comes from a press release or official announcement. What, you really thought President Nixon had officially released Watergate, or that the Enron directors had made a formal declaration about their crooked activities? No, the rule is that we’re supposed to find at least two substantive sources for every story. Unfortunately social media is diluting that. Only today I saw a report about an MP’s estranged wife accusing him of being an alcoholic. I make no comment on the truth or otherwise of the claim but it was taken from one of her Tweets. In other words, no second source – so he could sue if he wanted (mind you, he’d then be seen as the big bad MP suing his former wife – that would never play well).

Second, while we’re on the subject, an insult is not the same as a libel. Libels are specifically damaging allegations which are factually wrong. So if you wanted to call me a useless git whose work was unreadable I couldn’t touch you – it’s called vulgar abuse and the law doesn’t care. If you add that I’m habitually late with deadlines and I plagiarise, I can claim you’re damaging me because these are specific and untrue. This protects reviewers; I can say your play was rubbish; if I say it lost money when it didn’t, I’m acting unlawfully.

In terms of accusations, there are clear laws about what you may and may not report and that includes names. If you feel you’ve been named unjustifiably in a criminal case, you need to speak to a lawyer rather than read a blog.


The really interesting thing for me as a practitioner is how this stuff is evolving. OK, I’ve been a journalist for a quarter of a century and had some training so yes, I know about the two-source rule (and I’ve had a few of those which have proven, nonetheless, to be wrong after I published them – I don’t miss that sort of journalism, invaluable training ground though it was).

The emergence of the blogger, however, has diluted a lot of those standards. Don’t misunderstand me; there are some utterly superb bloggers out there whose work is as good as any professionally trained hack. There are others, though, who think they’re in the Wild West, who won’t acknowledge your right to reply and who don’t believe they need more than one source.

This is now spilling into the mainstream press, which is why we’re seeing MPs falling out with their wives and exchanging allegation of affairs and alcoholism without any real thought as to how legal these statements are. The journalists at least should be considering the legality; I suspect they’re actually weighing up whether these people are actually likely to sue and publishing regardless.

Obviously the best way to avoid this sort of coverage is to make the best of any press opportunity in the first place. I can help with interview skills and media preparation – click here to book some time on the phone and we’ll talk. Or fill in the form below and let me know how I can help.

How much does your Klout matter?

That’s not a typo in the headline – I’ve been looking at my Klout rating and wondering not what to do to improve it – my score of 76 is apparently respectable – but whether it matters.

I opened the website today and it congratulated me on the subjects on which it considered me an expert, including “accounting”. I haven’t told my accountant; given my record keeping skills and his knowledge of them I’m worried he’d hurt himself falling off his chair.

What Klout’s about

It all seems a bit random – you might as well throw some dice, write the number down and decide that’s your score. And yet there’s an emerging science behind this.

For the uninitiated, Klout is a business that assesses how “influential” you are on social media. It takes your Twitter feed, your Facebook interactions and several other networks such as LinkedIn into account, and gives you a score out of 100.

I’ve heard of people using it as an actual measure of something. For example, I once ran a day as MC at the Social Media World Forum in which a speaker I’d just introduced announced he’d reserved the first two rows of seats for people with a Klout score of 60 or above, and he read their names out.

You’ve never seen a more embarrassed bunch skulking towards the “best” seats – first because they didn’t want to look flash, second because if that was how the speaker began they didn’t know how he was going to continue, and being in the first two rows would make it difficult to slip out again later.

Clumsy use aside, I’ve heard of speaker agencies checking someone’s Klout score before booking them. I’ve heard of people putting their Klout score on their website. There are people who think this thing matters.

I just don’t get how something that fails to ask anything specific can offer a meaningful answer.


When I first wrote “This Is Social Media” I did a few speaking gigs at which I’d point to my own Klout score and also some of the areas in which it had decided I was an expert. One of these was “Muse Records”. As an “expert” I found I had to Google and find out what Muse Records actually was: it turned out it was a specialist jazz label from the early 1970s. It actually sounds rather good but how was I an expert when I’d never heard of it?

This morning, finding that I was an expert in accounting cemented my impression of this rather general measuring tool. Apparently the answer to “is Guy influential”? is “76” and the topics on which I’m an “expert” include those I outsource to someone else, in this case an accountant, because I know how long it would take me otherwise.

The principle, taking someone’s actual output rather than their claims, and therefore arriving at an objective view of what they’ve achieved rather than how they market themselves, is sound. When you can ask Klout or something like it a sensible question about me – “Can Guy write”, “Is Guy any good at media training” or something, that’ll be useful. Without context I’ll continue to query the value of “Is Guy influential” – what does everyone else think?

Media training issues: Is a ghost-written blog OK?

Many large organisations get people to write blogs for their executives. Is this a good idea?

I was media training a great group of people in the Midlands yesterday and one of them asked about the importance of blogging. He blogged quite a lot, he said, and always made sure he wrote it. His question was about whether journalists would pick up corporate blogs in their research (answer: in theory yes, in practice if it’s for a short news story there may not be time) but for me this raised a more important issue.

I’ve been asked from time to time to ghost write blogs for corporate clients, which then come out under their name. This is, subject to a good briefing, of course. But is it OK?

From my point of view of course it’s OK. I’m not doing anything wrong and as a freelance writer I’ll take most jobs on offer for which I have the right competence, which are straightforward and honest and for which the fee is right. I’d question whether it’s right for the client companies, however. Other people’s words can get you into trouble.

Authenticity and consistency

Before I even heard the word “blog” I received press releases regularly, as you’d expect. One was from a laptop manufacturer whose MD said, very stridently, “the age of the desktop computer is dead”. It was a good quote and a strong view so the release worked well – until something very particular happened.

The MD in question got a job at a desktop computer manufacturer. As you might guess, I found this highly amusing and threw his quote straight back at him. He denied having said it in the first place, he suggested he’d spoken about market growth for laptops rather than the decline of the desktop. He said it was a good journalistic dig but I’d got it slightly wrong. When I checked the original release back in the office, of course he’d said no such thing – the desktop, he’d declared, was dead. So what went wrong?

The answer was almost certainly that a PR person worked up the quote for a quick sell into the news pages (and it worked), the executive signed it off and thought no more about it. In the 1990s there was every reason to think a quote would be dead within a couple of weeks – he was just unlucky I’d remembered (and I was even unluckier I hadn’t brought the press release). It’s very different now.

Blog your own thoughts

Now, if you put something down on a blog, it’s semi-permanent. After I’ve published this piece of writing, anyone can read it and many can copy it onto their site (they shouldn’t without permission but I’ve had this happen to me – and as long as there’s a link back here I don’t mind). I can delete my copy and take it off this site but it might hang around for a while.

This is why it’s important to me that I write my own blog, and it’s why my client yesterday was determined he should write his own stuff. He was right. Contrary to my interests though it may be to advise people not to use ghost writers, having someone else put words and even views into your mouth can be counterproductive. If a journalist asks you what you meant when you wrote something that you didn’t actually draft, and they can produce the article on their phone or tablet and it has your name on it, it’s difficult to envisage a good ending to the interview.

If you don’t have the time to blog and absolutely have to use someone else, here are some thoughts:

  • Everything is in the briefing. Telling them you want “something about added value” is not going to produce a very precise article. I’ve had those clients!
  • The article should sound as though it comes from you. If there are certain words and phrases you never use and the writer slots them in, take them out.
  • Familiarise yourself with the message. By all means change your mind about something later and tell us so, but don’t be like my desktop computer man and deny you ever said something.

Need help with your media interactions? I can help – here’s my media training page.

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.

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