Tag Archives: marketing

Marketing and journalism are different – tell your clients!

Journalism has to be independent or else it’s marketing. That’s the theory anyway. In practice things are changing, but are they doing so for the better?

In media training sessions I sometimes get asked why journalists won’t let an interviewee change their quotes. The reasons are many: by asking to check quotes you’re hinting that we can’t do our jobs, our job is to reflect what was said rather than what you wish you’d said (unless there’s a factual inaccuracy), and above all we’re supposed to be independent and not someone who works for you. Except things are getting a little blurred.

Advertorials have been commonplace for some time. The deal is relatively simple: a company pays a publisher to write (or supplies the copy for) something that looks like an article but is in fact an advert. As long as it says something like “advertising promotion” across the top, the reader knows what they’re getting and nobody minds. The unwritten rule is that it has to be well written.

Now look at this article: http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/forbes-aims-to-bring-journalists-and-advertisers-together-on-the-page-through-new-co-storytelling-approach/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2016-11-21&utm_source=Press+Gazette+Daily+new+layout

For those who don’t want to, the essence is that for six years, Forbes has been putting journalistic copy alongside marketing copy so that there is an element of what it calls “co-storytelling”. So someone like me might write something on one page about, say, the Google Pixel phone, while someone from Google writes their account on another. Their copy gets labelled as promotional.

So far, so good. Except…would that someone like me be writing about the thing in the first place if the company hadn’t booked the promotion? Therefore, if the piece wouldn’t have existed without the fee, is it really independent?


There are variants of this, of course. Bloggers are an interesting example, sometimes not getting paid at all and some getting paid to promote products directly, without a clue as to why anyone should object. The unpaid variety sneer at journalists, who they say wouldn’t be writing about anything at all if they weren’t being paid by someone.

Which is a reasonable point of view. And then of course there’s the fake news – remember when Donald Trump said if he were to go into politics he’d be a Republican because they’ll believe anything? It’s a great quote but according to fact-checking site Snopes, he never said it.

For the moment at least, I’m going to stick with advising clients that the journalist is going to want to stay independent, won’t allow them to change quotes, won’t let them vet articles before they appear.

But I’ll be watching what happens carefully in case things change.

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

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.

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.