It has been a terribly long time since my last column – so long in fact that I receive the occasional message from a well-wisher along the lines of, ‘Rather gasping for the next column, old bean, any word?’ or ‘What’s the ETA on the next epistle, old top?’ or even once ‘Are you still alive?’
While I have not yet shed this mortal coil (no doubt to the chagrin of many), neither do I have a terribly helpful excuse for the lack of published verbiage. In other words, I have not been hospitalised, incarcerated, or even raised to the House of Lords. I have merely been rather tied up in a good deal of PR work of late, and as a result have been, as they say, ‘exceedingly busy.’
Not ‘exceedingly busy’ in the normal sense of the word common to those in public relations, however. What I mean to say is, honestly and truly exceedingly busy. As in, with results.
And by ‘results’ I do not mean the sort of garden variety results one bamboozles clients with – eg securing a casual mention on a website neither I nor the client had previously heard of. Or a Huffington Post column.
No, I placed a story for my most valued client on... (brace yourselves, chaps) the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
I will pause here, dear reader, to allow you to recover from the sharp intake of breath that you no doubt experienced upon the hearing of this news.
I will forgive any who scoff at this claim. It is a well-known fact that placing a story on the Today programme is generally beyond the sphere of mere mortals such as you and I. To secure coverage on such a platform one must normally rank as high as chancellor of the exchequer and above. How did I, someone openly referred to by friends and family as a puffed-up nincompoop, get a client on Today?
I hesitate to admit this in public, considering my reputation for bonhomie and indolence, but it required a beastly amount of hard work. I found the process unpleasant; sometimes this cannot be helped. Relentlessness was called for. I might go so far to say that I pursued the Today programme with a feverish intensity normally reserved for those chaps one reads about in novels, hell-bent on tracking down white whales.
No, John Humphries has not bitten off either of my legs (not yet, anyway), but I have still sought Today programme coverage with a monomania that, I’ll wager, would have made Captain Ahab himself blush like a schoolgirl. As yet, no Today programme staffer has sought a restraining order against me, but once or twice it was no doubt a close run thing.
Despite the many years of effort, however, I consistently failed to trouble the Today programme scorer. This was despite two rather vexing near misses:
At the start of my career, while working in-house, I myself was placed on standby by a Today producer. I had been asked to speak regarding an erupting PR brouhaha my employer was embroiled in (only partially my fault, I assure you). My hopes were dashed when, just after midnight, a call came through with gut-wrenching news: I was being passed over in favour of more coverage of a recent cash-for-influence scandal in Parliament. I felt rather aggrieved, as you can imagine. Cash-for-influence scandals are two-a-penny these days.
Then, two years ago, the venerable Simon Jack himself (then business presenter on Today) went so far as to record a cracking ‘Friday Boss’ interview with a new client of mine. It was hot stuff, as you might expect, but before the blasted thing could air Mr Jack took up a new position as business editor and left his regular slot on Today.
A year ago, however, I set off on another Today programme quest that ultimately proved fruitful. The idea was to arrange an interview one morning in advance of a press op later that day. The press op itself was bound to be a rather dull affair (the local MP was attending, but then local MPs will show up virtually anywhere these days). Advance coverage before the (most likely) damp squib of a press op would be most desirable, therefore.
Two things about the story immediately stood out: (1) it was interesting, and (2) it was possibly newsworthy. In other words, this was far from the typical story PRs are generally hired to push onto unsuspecting journalists. I was on to a good thing and I knew it, but no matter how interesting or newsworthy, no story is a sure thing with the Today programme. Fortunately, hard-won experience had taught me a few lessons about Today.
The first thing one must learn when engaging with the Today programme is that normal rules do not apply. Things work differently – or rather, they work mysteriously and unpredictably. Following years of frustration (and the occasional session of fury-induced head-banging), I have assembled the following four rules for pitching stories to Today:
Rule 1: Never, ever, ever expect a reply to any email sent to someone at Today, no matter how sweetly and obsequiously written. Don’t take offence: sitting at the vortex of news universe as they do, the chaps and chapettes at Today are no doubt overwhelmed with the press of events and all that. My advice is to place a call, get the email address of the Gemma, Oliver, Charlotte, or Hugo who answers, and send them an email immediately after the call. Follow up the email with a second call to the same person the next day.
Rule 2: Never, ever, ever expect to speak a second time to the same person at Today. The Today programme appears to employ an endless legion of Gemmas, Olivers, Charlottes, and Hugos who work in shifts around the clock. How these shifts are allocated has been a mystery to science for decades, but it can be taken as holy writ that the Oliver you spoke to at 3pm yesterday will not be available at 3pm today. Or tomorrow. Or at any sensible hour ever again. When instead of Oliver, Charlotte answers and tells you that Oliver is off that day or on a new shift rota, merely start over with her. Remaining calm is essential.
Rule 3: Never, ever, ever forget to ask who will be deciding if your story will run. Finding this elusive decision-maker at Today is a nearly impossible task and follows no discernible pattern. Gemma, Oliver, or Charlotte will likely insist that different people are the ones you must contact. If you are lucky, they might agree to forward your email to a producer who, they calmly assure you, will get back to you.
Rule 4: Never ever, ever believe anyone at Today when they tell you they will forward your story to a producer who will get back to you. Again, this should not taken as a slight. No doubt the Gemma, Oliver or Charlotte who promises to send your email to Hugo will in fact send the email, and no doubt that same Gemma, Oliver or Charlotte has good reason to be confident Hugo will respond. But rest assured, somewhere along the line the process will break down and (without further action on your part) your mobile phone will remain undisturbed by calls from BBC producers.
A week into my quest and I had pitched verbally and via email to two Gemmas, an Oliver and three Charlottes. The last of these had insisted, most persuasively, that I really needed to speak to Hugo, that he was next in tomorrow morning, and that she would forward my email to him and mark it as a priority. The next morning, brimming with trepidation, I picked up the blower and dialed Hugo’s direct line.
"Hello," Hugo thundered. It was not the sort of ‘hello’ that boded well for the conversation that was to follow. It brimmed with world-weariness and exasperation. If ever so inclined, Hugo could no doubt have a second career as a headmaster.
On another day Hugo’s "hello" might have sent me scurrying for the underside of the nearest duvet, but I was feeling rather world-weary myself by this stage so I pressed on. Careful not to pause for breath at any point until my entire point had been made, I quickly explained my reason for calling, summarised my client’s pitch and referred to the email forwarded to him the day before by Charlotte.
"She said she would mark the email as a priority," I explained, finally running out of puff.
At first there was only a long, ominous silence. Then, finally, Hugo spoke.
"I know nothing about this. Why don’t I know anything about this?"
There was more than a touch or annoyance in his voice. I wasn’t sure if he was annoyed at Gemma, Oliver, Charlotte, or me, but I feared it was the latter somehow.
"Send everything to me in an email and I’ll get back to you," he said. He spoke with a finality in his voice that made me think I had best end the call rather sharpish if there was to be any hope for my client’s story. So I did.
Although the call provided some reason to have hope, in my heart I was feeling rather dejected. Hugo’s promise to respond to my email had the same ring to it as a promise from a client with an overdue invoice to settle his account by the end of the month.
Two days passed without word. I split my time between wondering if I should risk calling Hugo a second time or have another cup of tea. I drank a great deal of tea – it seemed a much safer option.
Then, a mere 12 hours before the story’s embargo lifted, my phone buzzed announcing a call from a ‘private number’. Experienced PRs will know, the ‘private number’ wheeze is not used exclusively by chaps pushing PPP claims – it is also the sign of a call coming from a BBC office.
The caller identified herself as Gemma (not one of the Gemmas I had spoken to previously, it transpired). She wanted to arrange an interview with my client for the following morning.
Cock-a-hoop, I struggled to contain my excitement and babbled somewhat. Worse than usual, I mean.
I jotted down the particulars Gemma conveyed and then, as I expressed my thanks, I remembered a vitally important question.
“What time is this for?” I blurted out. “Tomorrow, I mean. The interview. When will it take place? As in, which part of the programme?”
“.... 6:45?” Gemma said. Gemma’s tone suggested she thought that my question, haltingly expressed as it was, was a rather odd one.
“Crikey!” I exclaimed. “That’s splendid!”
“Is it?” Gemma asked, bemused.
But of course, everyone knows that 6:45 is a truly stupendous time to appear on Today. The first hour of the show is when the go-getting movers and shakers of this world are preparing for the day. It is when the early birds are up and at ‘em, preparing to tuck into their proverbial worms (or so I’m told. I’m never up at such an absurdly early hour, of course).
Returning for a moment to Gemma’s bemusement, however, I was a bit nonplussed that someone working for Today would fail to understand the magnitude of the gift she was bestowing on me. But as this was possibly the apex of my career, I decided to be magnanimous. I thanked her profusely, and (no doubt to her relief) ended the call with a cheery “Pip, pip!”
Unlike Gemma, my client had enough perception to recognize a good thing sans bemusement. The news of the interview and its 6:45 time slot bucked him up like a tonic. We talked through the main points to cover, whether it was good form or not to refer to Today presenters on air by their Christian names, etc. Call concluded, there was nothing to do now but wait for the big moment to arrive.
As alluded to previously, the hour of 6:45 is little known to me as a time to greet the day. It is much more familiar in fact as a time for climbing into bed after a night out on the tiles. As I retired I requested my manservant Perkins waken me a few minutes preceding said ungodly hour with a cup of strong tea in hand.
Ever the loyal servant, said request was followed to the letter. However, as I rubbed the sleep from my weary eyes, I am not ashamed to say I was soon wishing Perkins had brought me something a good deal stronger than tea.
Having had my fingers burnt twice previously by Today, I was feeling thrice shy to say the least as the moment of truth approached. Radio news programmes often run late at the end of the hour – might the interview be dropped at the last moment? When 6:45 came and went I feared the worst. Panic began to set in, and I started to mentally sketch out a possible escape to South America before the press op that afternoon.
But then, just as I was musing on whether one needs immunisations or not for South America, the bally interview aired! It was a minute late, but the thrill was so intense I decided not one to quibble. My life’s work (if I may call what I do ‘work’) had reached its zenith.
Much relieved, but still struggling with the unnaturally early hour, I finished my now-delightful-tasting cup of tea, snuggled back into my bedclothes, and instructed Perkins to wake me in two hours. I slept like the proverbial baby, have no doubts.
Shortly before 9am, when I had later regained my full faculties and was contemplating the day ahead, I quickly realized the most valuable thing about coverage on the Today programme was the sense of freedom that accompanied it. With the summit of UK media coverage firmly conquered, the pressure for the rest of the day was off. Would I be sweating it out in the minutes leading up to the press event, wondering if anyone would show? No I would not – nothing else could top what had already occurred at 6:46am.
Full of vim and vigour, I glided through the rest of the day’s proceedings. No complication, real or imagined, could penetrate my cocoon of sangfroid on that magic day. Except, that is, for one decidedly sticky moment which I had failed to anticipate.
The local MP attending the press op, referred to previously, turned out to be none other than former chancellor of the exchequer, the Rt. Hon. George Gideon Oliver Osborne, CH, PC.
As I said, local MPs show up virtually anywhere these days – television cameras draw them out like proverbial flies to honey. This also appears to apply to ex-chancellors. Recently turfed out from 11 Downing Street following the post-referendum putsch, Mr Osborne had not yet taken up the reigns of the Evening Standard. So, presumably, he had little else to do.
I encountered him in an otherwise empty hallway as one invariably does when one is not sure what to say to a chap. The moment appeared to call for some polite banter, but the standard playbook for polite banter with recently-deposed chancellors eluded me. Any topic related to the economy, no doubt, was a potential sore point. Talking about the weather or anything else would seem, to me at least, to be a transparent attempt to talk about something other than the economy.
We paused awkwardly, he waiting for me to launch into chitchat and me silently fumbling for le mot juste. Before my impression of a Trappist monk could really take hold, however, my client thankfully emerged from around the corner. Inspiration flashed!
I mentioned previously that chaps of the rank of chancellor of the exchequer and above are in much demand on the Today programme. Mr Osborne had appeared so many times I fancy he has his own favourite mug set aside for him at Broadcasting House. Here was some common ground both he and my client shared. A deft conversational intro was called for.
“Did you know ______ was on the Today programme this morning?” I said, referring to my client. I could see I had hit my mark when Mr Osborne’s expression, previously fixed in the pose of dutiful MP, positively lit up.
“Oh really,” he said, turning to my client with newfound respect. “What time were you on?”
Hearing this question emerge from the mouth of a Today programme virtuoso such as Mr Osborne as the initial point of conversational reference was a moment of supreme justification. My only regret was I didn’t have a recording to ship to Today programme HQ for Gemma et al to listen to.
“6:45,” my client responded.
This was met with an approving nod, of course. Whatever you may think of Mr Osborne’s politics, there can be no doubt that he knows his onions when it comes to optimal timings for Today programme appearances.
With their particular freemasonry fully established, Mr Osborne and my client struck up a decidedly matey dialogue. And with this distraction, I was able to forge an escape.
Of course, if I’d known this ex-chancellor was on the verge of becoming editor-in-chief at the Standard I would have stuck around and tried to at least wrangle a lunch invitation out of him. But there we are. These things cannot always be helped.
Still revelling in the glow of Today programme success, I headed over to my club, and tucked into a celebratory chop and single malt. And I turned off my phone, of course. For the rest of the evening, as far as the outside world was concerned at least, I was going to be ‘exceedingly busy’.