Should you stop annoying journalists?

Last week I asked readers what they’d like me to cover in a webinar I was due to host this week. That’s now postponed for a fortnight but one request caught my eye: someone wanted to know how to avoid annoying journalists. Maybe oddly, I’ve concluded that a good PR person should be an annoyance occasionally.

Let’s just be clear before I get slaughtered: I’m not talking about annoying us for the sake of it, calling every five minutes (one PR company took to calling me every day when they’d issued a press release a while back, and that achieved nothing for them or their clients). But there are others who call when they have something distinct and useful to say and that’s welcome.

I’ve seen people on Facebook and elsewhere offering advice like: don’t call journalists. Don’t follow up a press release, ever. Don’t delegate journalist contacts to young women, older male journalists know what you’re up to (genuinely, someone hinted at this on a Facebook group only last week).

I have another suggestion.

Don’t forget who you work for

I get that I’m not going to win any popularity contests among some of my colleagues for saying this, but: who do some of these journalists think they are? We have the word “journalist” in our job title and this, to my mind at least, implies that people who believe they have interesting stories may get in touch.

Of course, “interesting” in turn implies that you’ve found out about my readership and what I actually write about. Scattergunning any old release at all journalists whether they’re likely to give a whatsit or not is counterproductive.

I speak to a lot of PR people, though, who listen to journalists chanting the “don’t call me” mantra but when you ask quietly they confirm that relevant press releases followed up by a call tend to produce better results than those not followed up at all. And the job is to get a result, not necessarily to butter up an insecure hack who has forgotten that he or she doesn’t employ you so their best interest is in friendly co-operation rather than in outright hostility. That doesn’t mean responding positively to every approach; it means declining politely when something doesn’t appeal, and giving a reason why where possible.

So here’s my guide to not annoying journalists. First, accept that some will always be annoyed. A handful are resentful of the fact that they need PR people at all, considering them somehow “impure”. Ignore them, they’ll never be happy with you. Focus instead on the politely responsive, and tailor your pitches; have an idea of where you’re aiming your story and why it will appeal. Be selective about when you call. If it’s after every release the call becomes white noise. If it’s only after the ones you really think deserve our attention, we’re likely to listen.

And difficult though it is, don’t let us get away with patronising you. You don’t work for us, we don’t work for you but we can share aims on occasion so an atmosphere of understanding the other side and its objectives will help everybody. If we’re treating you like an idiot because we think you’re 20 years younger than us, that’s our problem – journalists with that attitude probably think 40 is “young”.

Actually, now that I think of it, I wouldn’t mind being 40 again…

Media mistakes 9: (Most) Journalists aren’t trying to trap you

Why did you hire me for media training? That’s a question I ask every training delegate I come across and the most common answer is that they want to avoid the traps journalists will lay. They’ve done interviews before and they weren’t sure of the journalist’s agenda or what he or she was up to.

They are often disappointed when the answer is “nothing, mostly, just trying to write a decent story for the readers”.

The most extreme example of this was when I asked one candidate to “tell me about yourself and your organisation”. She panicked, said she couldn’t answer that, asked to stop the exercise and said, accusingly, “Why would you want to know anything about me?”

The answer was that I didn’t. A name and job title would have been fine, then move on to the company information she wanted to press.

Another time – a favourite story, this – I asked a guy the same thing during a session. “Tell me about yourself and your organisation”, I said. “Ah, I think I know what you’ve heard,” he said. “And it’s a fact that if you asked my last boss whether I resigned or whether I was pushed he’d disagree with me, but let me tell you, I resigned!”

I was no longer remotely interested in anything else he had to say. I just wanted to know more about his sacking SORRY resignation.

Sometimes the agenda is in your mind

In both of these cases the difficulty was in the mind of the person answering the question. In most of my media training sessions my first question is “Tell me about yourself and your organisation” – it’s me clearing my throat, trying to lower the temperature, just to make sure we have the basics covered. There’s nothing more to it than that.

Most journalists, in fact, will approach businesspeople with a view simply to writing the story up (or broadcasting it, webcasting or whatever they do). They aren’t looking to stitch you up, trash you or humiliate you.

One or two might, and of course a lot of the tricks they play and the strategies to deal with them are very much at the heart of my training offering. A lot of the time, though, you’re going to have straightforward questions from people who aren’t playing mind games, they’re just doing a job, the same as you.

Do you still need help with your media interaction? Want to know what to do when a journalist asks that question you were hoping they wouldn’t, or fails to ask the question that would lead in to your big sell? I can help – call me on 07973 278780 or email by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Do journalists and PR people have to “believe”?

Someone asked me a question on Quora, the social “question and answer” media network, recently. They were in PR and they had been asked to represent a politician whose views they found abhorrent. What, they asked, should they do?

A number of people also tagged in the question responded. Be true to yourself, some said, while others said swallow your pride, it’s only a job. I have no idea how extreme this politician’s views were but I’d stick with the one answer. Or rather I’d ask one question.

Do you believe in democracy?

It’s not about me

A couple of years ago I was editing a few supplements for the New Statesman on the subject of Gibraltar. It was a fun assignment and I still edit the magazine’s web hub on the Rock after one year edited by someone else. We wanted something from an MEP for one of the supplements.

The obvious person was from UKIP. I should confess to a certain bias here; I regard UKIP as a political fan club for a leader who can’t even master the art of resignation. You don’t have to agree, but you can see where I’m coming from.

So you might think I had a dilemma. I didn’t. I got in touch with the guy’s press officer, who was more than helpful, and we ran the article that was submitted on time and to length. I made minimal cuts for length. If the press officer or MEP are reading, this will hopefully be the first indication they’ve had that I wasn’t 100 per cent behind them.

The thing is, I’m a journalist. I’m not an elected representative and anyone who is – much though I might disdain their view – has more legitimacy than I do. Unelected people seeking election also have a constitutional right to be heard.

As a journalist I regard it as part of my job to make sure they’re heard. In the same way, if they want to pay a PR person or company to get their message out there, as long as it’s not actual hate, that’s legit. The media and its support agencies are the messenger, not the originator, most of the time.

I’d welcome other people’s views.

IN DEFENCE OF THE PRESS RELEASE |

I’ve been taking part in a Facebook discussion on whether the press release is dead as a useful thing. My answer is generally “no” and a lot of my views are duplicated in this excellent blog from the Comms Dept:

via IN DEFENCE OF THE PRESS RELEASE |.

The problem is that there are some pretty naff press releases out there. So if you’re writing one or are part of the team doing so, here are some of the things that would help me as a journalist.

  • A clear subject line. Too often (ie more than once) people try something clever. Just tell me what has happened: Company X lands major contract, Company B launches new product – whatever it is. If you can’t summarise it quickly does it really need to be said?
  • A good summary in the opening paragraph. I’m a journalist and I’m used to writing news. I therefore expect to read news in a newsy format which means the important stuff goes in immediately – who, what, when, where, how. I may read no further if I’m pushed for time so why not put everything important at the front?
  • Good targeting. Yes it’s difficult to keep track of journalists as their careers progress and they move from title to title. But yes that’s part of the job. If you want me to be interested in writing something you’d better have at least a vague idea of who my readers are.
  • Available spokespeople. A colleague recently replied to a press release and had an autoresponse message that made it clear that the sender was on holiday for a month and didn’t want to be bothered. OK, you’re entitled to your holiday and if you can afford to take a month off, good luck to you – but don’t bother me with a press release if you can’t be bothered yourself, OK?
  • Decent English. I know, I know, it shouldn’t matter, I’m looking for relevance rather than eloquence ideally. However, if you don’t know the difference between their, there and they’re, its and it’s, I might find it irritating. If you clearly don’t know your stuff I’ll be more so. Remember the security breach at married dating organisation Ashley Madison? I had two releases commenting on the incident at Madison Ashley. It just looked like opportunistic grubbing around after half-reading a headline.

Other than the targeting, it all ought to be fairly straightforward.

Do you need help with writing your releases? Email me and we’ll talk.

How to ‘flirt’ with journalists on Twitter | Articles | Home

Sometimes I see something that just makes me cough and splutter a bit, and so it is with this blog post (the link is below).

It contains good advice for the PR community. It says follow journalists on Twitter. It says interact with them.

It then says flirt with them.

Yicch.

If there are any young female PR people taking this nonsense seriously out there, please note that even if you look exactly like a young Jerry Hall I have no wish to end up looking like Rupert Murdoch. I’m happy to meet up for coffee, discuss the commissions on which I’m working and the papers for which I write – but please, “friendly and professional” is fine.

via How to ‘flirt’ with journalists on Twitter | Articles | Home.

Need help interacting with journalists? My media training can help – email me and we’ll talk.

Media mistakes 3: It’s a good idea to answer at length

One of the frustrations I often face as a journalist is that people answer my questions as thoroughly as they can. I’ve just got off the phone with a guy I’m covering for the New Statesman; he was genuinely interesting and had a lot to say and I’m going to share as much as possible with the readers.

Note, “as much as possible”. In other words I’m going to have to be selective, cut a bit, eliminate repetitions and turn it into journalese.

In this case that won’t be a problem because the guy was himself a journalist. He was, consciously or otherwise, aware of my need to make an article out of his comments. Not everybody is as informed.

Read the papers, look at the quotes

When I first started writing, I naively thought the seasoned commentators would speak in pure quotes. They don’t, of course. I was quite shocked when I asked a guy why he’d chosen to sell a particular gadget and he came out with about 200 words.

I did my best to select what the readers would need to know and probably got it about right at the time. That was, however, a risk on his part.

It’s worth looking at the newspapers, magazines and online sources, whether multimedia or otherwise, that you’re targeting. How long are the quotes that they use? There are unlikely to be any strict rules but you’re bound to notice there isn’t much waffle. More than 15 words in print is going to start looking like a soliloquy.

This needn’t be a problem to the journalist, we’re used to cutting and getting to the nub of the story. It’s what we’re paid for. But…do you want our choice of your words speaking for you, or would you rather have yours? The only way to ensure I use your choice of quote, that will serve your company well, is to make your point briefly and then, politely, stop speaking. And the only way to make sure those words work for you is to prepare carefully.

If I have a choice of 200 words, I’m going to choose those that fit my story the best. I won’t sabotage your quotes but my idea of “best” may not be yours. If I have only 30, I’m pretty much forced to use your choice.

So, how thoroughly do you generally answer questions?

Do you need help with interview technique? Contact me on 07973 278780.

Is body language important?

Media training candidates sometimes ask me whether body language matters. Some candidates (and more problematically their PR advisors) think there are fixed rules.

My only rules are as follows: first, try to watch yourself on video. Second, don’t get too hung up on what you see.

Try not to look like Thunderbirds

A couple of years ago a colleague and I were media training a CEO from a large international company. He was a nice guy and listened to people. Unfortunately one of the people to whom he paid most attention was his public relations person.

That should have been a good thing and it was, until we started filming him. Then she started giving instructions out. He looked relaxed, so she told him to sit up. He’d been speaking with his hands all the way through the session – so she told him to keep them rigidly by his side.

Honestly, by the end of it he looked like a particularly stilted puppet. It just didn’t work.

If you’re concerned about how you might look when you’re being interviewed, first bear in mind that everybody else feels the same – we hate to watch ourselves on television. Second, if you look comparatively relaxed, don’t formalise it too much – you’re better off looking human.

We all umm and aah a bit in conversation. Take it all out and you look as though you’re doing a speech rather than a genuine interview. The audience can spot a prepared question at some distance.

Be natural, be yourself, be prepared and well-briefed. It’s pretty much all you’re going to need. I can help with practice and interview techniques if you need them.

Do you need help with your media interactions? From December, all media training sessions with me will include a filmed HD interview – fill in the form below and we’ll talk.