Tag Archives: off the record

What do you mean when you offer an “exclusive”?

I had an offer of an exclusive story last week. It wasn’t huge but nonetheless the idea that it was coming to my publication and my publication only was appealing. So when a press release with all the details went far and wide just as I was typing the story up, I was livid.

The PR company didn’t seem to understand why. So here are some details.

I had a call from the PR people. They offered me a story exclusively and I said I’d be pleased to look at it. It was interesting and two days later they called back and I said yes, I’d like it as an exclusive. They agreed. So today I was in the middle of typing it and, as I say, I received the release – I checked with them that it hadn’t gone elsewhere and I found that it had indeed, and that this was part of their normal conduct with an embargoed story.

So what’s an exclusive?

A Facebook conversation I started seems to be quite divided about this. There are people who consider that the “exclusive” may have meant “nobody else sees this before it’s released so you get extra time to write it” – which means the sites that just publish press releases get it at around the same time I did because they don’t put the research in. Meanwhile I get about 30 seconds as the only person with this story on the Web.

There were people who considered that I should have published earlier – dead on the stroke of midnight – to ensure the exclusive (because all of my readers are poring over my stuff at midnight, of course). Many people thought the executive had confused the fact that there was an embargo with the notion of an exclusive.

Exclusive means exclusive

So here’s the news, if you’re in PR or organising your own publicity. Exclusive, to a journalist, means only one thing: you’re not giving the story to anyone else. In the trade press and in the case of a huge story, this can be a silly thing to promise. Unless you have metrics to prove that appearing in a particular outlet will benefit you or your client more than any other, or if a major outlet will only cover the story if it’s exclusive, why would you do it?

But don’t, really don’t, tell us something is exclusive and then send out the general release when we’re typing up the story. Irritation and a general reluctance to deal with your company again will inevitably follow.

Know your terms

It reminded me of an occasion ten years or so ago when I was invited to a press briefing. “We’re having a day of exclusive interviews,” the PR person gushed. I asked, reasonably I thought, how you could have a whole day of exclusive interviews. “Oh, the interview Accountancy Age does will be exclusive to them, your interview will be exclusive to you…” she said.

Which might have been accurate but it was so general that it devalued the whole day, which would probably have done quite well if it hadn’t been overhyped. Likewise today’s “exclusive” – I would probably have gone for it anyway. I’ll now be looking twice at any press release coming from that particular PR company.

“Exclusive” if it is no such thing is actually a damaging promise to make. Like “off the record”, if your understanding of it is not the same as that of the person to whom you’re talking, it can be a very bad thing. If you’re going to offer an exclusive, be very sure that you and the journalist know just what that means.

And if you’re sending it anywhere else, why do you think it’s exclusive?

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Media training lesson for me – off the record

In every media training session I’ve run I’ve made it clear that there is no such thing as “off the record”. If you’re talking to journalists, why would you say something you don’t want the readers or viewers to know?

Mostly the public relations executive in the room nods sagely and agrees with me. Not last week, however. I was training (my clients are always confidential unless they specifically allow otherwise so I won’t name them) somewhere in London and I made the usual point.

The client squirmed. They were in security software and services, they explained (I knew that, I’d been listening). So of course they couldn’t name their clients, no matter how journalists asked. However, media training principles or not, they’d still offer journalists off-the-record briefings from time to time.

Background briefing

The reasoning was simple. Journalists are career writers rather than, say, security experts. And they – I should say “we” – get a lot of press releases and leads from purported experts. The big secret is that we aren’t always in a position to tell the good stuff from the chaff.

So on occasion, journalists call or maybe even come in to this organisation for a “deep background briefing”. The terms are straightforward; the company can’t be seen criticising a client or prospect for incompetence so the journalist can’t name or quote them. They can, however, leave the room better informed than they were and with a definite idea about what’s happened beyond the marketing froth; in fact sometimes they need help with determining whether something is a story at all.

That’s just about my favourite sort of media training session. I have over a quarter of a century’s experience in the press and I enjoy sharing it, but the very best sessions are the ones that prod me into thinking a bit more carefully and questioning my own preconceptions.

Media training principles

I’d still stand by “no such thing as off the record” as a general principle. If you don’t know me, you don’t know how reliable I am, whether by design or plain disorganisation, so you don’t know how “off the record” I’m actually going to be (here’s another entry on the subject). But I get that there can be exceptions, and some of them can be pretty important.

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