Journalism vs PR

By The Drum | Administrator

June 24, 2004 | 5 min read

Jo Watson of the P&J

Jo Watson, business and agriculture editor, The Press & Journal

You cast a vote in favour of Graeme Jack being made the guest editor of The Drum – and how does he repay you? He asks you to write 400 words on how PRs can improve their relations with journalists.

One suspects there may yet be a “free” meal in it but, given it took him eight years to honour his previous pledge, I am not exactly holding my breath.

So what good can be said about PRs in Scotland? One could be negative and say nothing, as usually they stand in the way of a full story. In truth, good PRs are worth their weight in gold. Sadly, like the precious metal, they are a rare commodity.

The professionals know never to call a news desk during daily conference times unless the issue is particularly urgent. They know who deals with specific areas and generally have an excellent rapport with those at the sharp end of news delivery. Good PRs can save a journalist considerable legwork by providing background information. They too can come up with excellent ideas for stories and features.

Sadly, the positives are outweighed by a series of negatives. Why is it that many PRs no longer write in English and instead adopt the latest meaningless business-speak? Why do they bombard newspapers with pointless guff that would never conceivably see the light of day? Why don’t PRs return our calls? Why do they persistently call us and ask if we used a press release they sent us nine weeks ago?

Why is it that they don’t know their geography and now all seem to be called Polly-Magnolia Curruthers-Smith-Flower? Why do they persist in sending us e-mails with press releases as attachments? Have they no idea how many hundreds of press releases we get in every day and how long it takes to open them?

As you can see, it is a subject dear to my heart.

So here are some pointers to building better relationships with journalists:

ï Avoid calling at daily conference times (generally from 10 a.m.–11 a.m. and 5 p.m.–6 p.m.) unless it is urgent.

ï Give us the facts and figures about jobs and money, not guff nor spin.

ï Give us stories, not adverts – and if you don’t know what a story is then read a newspaper.

ï Consider all press releases from North American and French energy companies as the worst possible examples.

ï Ensure that the contact you name in a press release is available to respond to queries on the day it is issued, not seven weeks later.

ï If you can’t get an immediate answer to a query call the journalist back and tell them, rather than leaving them hanging in the air.

Now, Mr Jack, where’s my lunch?

Mike Haggerty, head of communications, the Scottish Qualifications Authority

“Sorry to disturb you so early, but ...” These are the first words I hear as my wife passes me the bedroom phone with a look that says she’s confused the receiver with something the dog left behind.

And the purpose of this 5.00 a.m. call? To dig out a response or a spokesperson for a radio or TV item within the next couple of hours. Actually, I don’t mind being disturbed so early if I have to be – after all, it’s my job in today’s 24/7 news environment. But what I do mind is a 5.00 a.m. call when, with a bit of pre-planning, a 5.00 p.m. call the previous evening could have set up exactly the same item.

Another favourite is the 5.05 p.m. Friday evening call, when the rest of the organisation has left for the pub, leaving the poor duty PR in splendid isolation and – crucially – unable to verify, or not, the ludicrous claims the journo wants you to check out. And guess what? With the PR unable to knock the story down, it runs in all its splendid speculation. If I were a cynic I’d think more often than I do that this type of timing is deliberate.

And how often does more than one journalist from the same news desk call about the same story? Sometimes it seems like they’re taking turns. For example, guess how many different BBC TV crews turned up for SQA exam results day a couple of years ago? You’d need more than the fingers of one hand to count, and you’d be just short of taking your shoes and socks off as well.

We’ve all heard this one – “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.” Thankfully, it doesn’t happen in Scotland. After all, if a morning paper makes a claim, surely that stable’s evening paper is perfectly entitled to lift it? The inconvenience that the morning journalist got the figures wrong and the evening journalist didn’t check the story at all is just one of those things. Later, both papers will bury their “sorry” as deep as they can get away with, in contrast to the headlines the inaccurate version benefited from.

But a good journalist, on top of his/her brief, who knows how to reach the person with the information, who plays fair, who can write both sides of the story, and who knows that you won’t be making contact unless it’s to your mutual advantage to do so ... I’ll take that any day.


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