Post 32,2009: A tail of two emails

A couple of days ago,  I received an email from a local operative at a large, international, PR agency. The content of the mail was simple: it asked me to send the operative a copy of a 2010 feature list.

The mail opened with “Hi there” and did not mention a publication.

By now you have figured out that this was a mass mailer.

I find that pretty odd. Here was a PR person asking me to devote some time and attention to them, and they could not even bother to personalise an email to me.

This agency, for what it is worth, uses the following phrases to describe itself on its web site:

  • “… passionate, straight-talking …”
  • “We embrace technology and know how to make brands relevant and stand out from the crowd by talking in a language that everyone understands …”
  • “… we’re passionate about communication …”

I imagine that anyone who is truly “straight talking”, “embrace[s] technology” and is “passionate about communication” would realise that using “Hi There” to open an email is pretty poor.  To say it in “language that everyone understands” it is, IMHPO, pathetically lazy and a betrayal of the values professed on the company’s site and makes a lie of PR firms’ general assertion that they understand media, have great relationships with us all and are especially cunning communicators trained and expert at delivering their clients messaging.

Now for email number two, from a local agency.

It was a Christmas greeting and contained a simple graphical card in which, miraculously, my name had been emblazed across a Christmas tree decoration.

It was simple, cute and the addition of a single word – my first name – demonstrated a little care and attention had been paid. That, to my mind, is professional communication.

The first email was an embarrassment of a sort that, sadly, a significant minority of PR firms still practice.

Post 32, 2009: Why are online image libraries *STILL* so amazingly shit?

One of the most disappointing things in the journo/PR interface is the continued patchy availability and quality of online image libraries.

The need for online image libraries became glaringly apparent in about 1996.

Since then, I reckon less than 50% of vendors get them right. I have no idea why as a good image library is a blindingly obvious idea.

Some holdouts, I suspect, wish to control distribution of their images. I cannot imagine why.

Others have just been lazy.

Whatever the reason, let me state this now, loud and proud, for the last time.

IF YOU HAVE REALLY GOOD IMAGES ONLINE THAT JOURNOS CAN GET ASAP, YOU WILL GET MORE AND BETTER COVERAGE.

So get to it!

Post 31, 2009: Oh no! I’ve become one of those journos who always asks a boring niche question

One of the things that can get a bit tiresome at media events is journos with niche audiences who have to ask a question relevant to their audience and pretty much their audience alone.

Journos from channel mags, for example, always ask about channel strategy, a topic of little interest to 90% of the assembled media.

Business newspaper reporters always ask about money, often in considerable detail, again provoking rolled eyes from many other media in the crowd.

It’s sooooooooooo boring when this happens.

Yet as I prepared to ask a question of a visiting CEO last week, I realised that I have become one of those journos. Editing searchstorage.com.au means I must now ask  boring niche questions no-one else cares about.

Sorry, my colleagues, it’s a dirty job covering storage, etc …

My PR readers now get to put something else in their briefing documents about me!

Post 30, 2009: My HackiPod

About a year ago, my old iPod died. I’m pretty sure it is what Apple calls a “Clickwheel” iPod. The disk started making odd sounds and it stopped working.

I looked into replacing the disk, but 1.8 inch hard disks are rather expensive these days.

So I hunted around on the net and found several articles asserting that it is easy to replace an iPod’s hard disk with a compact flash card. (I’ve lost the bookmark for the site I used, but this one seems fine.)

To do so, one needs an adapter to convert a 1.8 inch IDE hard drive connector to a CF card converter. Happily, I found such a device here.

Next step: opening the old iPod. As you probably know, iPods are sealed units and are not designed to be opened. As luck would have it, I had dropped this iPod and its white casing was knocked ever-so-slightly off-center and had left a small gap. That gave me the space I needed to insert a watchmaker’s screwdriver into the gap and prise it open a little. The next tool I used was an awl, a.k.a. a pointy piece of metal with a handle attached, to widen the gap further. Eventually, the white casing gave a little pop! and the iPod came apart.

Next, removing the hard drive. This was not hard, but required a firm tug. It came off quite easily.

The adapter is easy to fit, as it is readily apparent where the pins will fit. Adding the CF card was a doddle (we had a spare 1GB card around the house gathering dust), then the white component of the case clipped back together easily.

The CF card and adapter are not as voluminous as the hard disk and lack the housing found inside an iPod, which meant the iPod connector jangled around a little ominously before I closed the case. But once I snapped it shut, everything fell into place.

I connected the iPod to my PC and iTunes recognised is straight away, installed the iPhone OS, reformatted it, then let me synch to it. In less than ten minutes, it was a working iPod again.

I’m impressed that Apple does not prohibit iPod rebuilds of this sort.

So … what am I doing with what I have decided to call my HackiPod? Well … it’s now my iPod of choice for bicycle training. I use it out in the shed on the static trainer. At 1GB it does not have a heap of content, but it can store far more than I can listen to in a single training session of (typically) 45 minutes.

The adapter cost about $23, inc postage. The iPod was originally $799 and we have since replaced it with a$329 iPod classic. So this was no money-saver. And it means we now have five working iPods in a four-person household (two iPhones, the HackiPod, the Classic and a new Nano for Mr 8).

But it was fun to hack this iPod back to life.

Post 29,2009. Dialog.

Righto. Here we go with a series of posts, my last about the experience of being a working journo interacting with PRs.

I’m not grooming this stuff or pulling punches. I’m letting it flow as my last set of vents in this format.

This one is about courage and dialog.

The two are intertwined, I feel, because sometimes courage is needed to sustain a dialog.

Here’s why.

I make a point of offering dialog with PR folks, for three reasons:

  1. If they plainly do not understand my work, I am willing to enter into dialog to help them understand it better
  2. I am interested to hear what they have to say beyond the things their clients’ want them to say
  3. I sometimes feel it is worth initiating a dialog about a PR’s knowledge of the titles for which I write

The first offer of dialog produces a very interesting result, namely no response. I usually make this offer to people who contact me for the first time with something wildly inappropriate. Rather than a flat No with no possibility of return, I make an offer to meet or stage a call so they can be more accurate and/or appropriate in future. This is not taken up in 90% of cases, re-enforcing my suspicion that much pitching is conducted on the same basis as outbound telemarketing, namely a low expectation of success and no intention of securing anything other than a swift and simple transaction. This is an asynchronous and irritating tactic that is responsible for much irritation among media.

I try to initiate dialog for the second reason in order to understand more about a pitch. I will often be offered an interview or sent information which I do not immediately believe is newsworthy without some additional contextual information. As I have long and frequent experience of interviewees being tedious, tangential or unwilling to do anything other than deliver messaging, I try to get as much information as possible in order to make that judgement without first agreeing to an interview. To do so, I press quite hard, as if a story is not immediately newsworthy but I have a suspicion it could be, I want to make sure my judgement is right.

Anyway … in attempting to delve into an idea, the resulting dialog often produces results that suggest to me that a great many PR people lack sufficient knowledge to represent their clients to seasoned or technical media. This is not a criticism. Indeed, it may not be reasonable to expect that these dialogs are fulfilling. I have experienced some PRs in other, larger, countries who exist in niches that allows them to offer more specialised and detailed dialogs. I suspect Australia’s small size is a reason for these experiences.

My third reason for initiating dialog is an attempt to draw understand the reason a seemingly inappropriate pitch has been made, in the hope of understanding it better or initiating an educational dialog. It usually goes something like this:

PR: My client is super-relevant to your readers and you should write about them.

Me: Do we have a section in this title where that kind of thing appears?

PR: (Usually) I don’t know

Me: So do you think we are a chance of running this? Is this the kind of thing we usually offer our readers?

PR: Probably not and/or Well I think I once saw something a bit like it?

Perhaps this is me pinning butterflies, but I’ve always felt it’s pretty reasonable to expect that a PR will have an idea of whether or not the titles I write for support their pitches. I’ve never been entirely sure if going Socratic to draw out ignorance is kinder or more cruel than a flat “Title X does not cover that/does not have a news section/is not interested” but I have long suspected it is kinder because if the PR has read the title the reason for a pitch’s failure dawns on them. If they have not, I always respond with information about why the pitch is not appropriate.

I gather the stuff mentioned above is often interpreted as rudeness or borderline hostility, which I have always found odd. Perhaps a pleasant No is better than an attempt to learn more. Perhaps I am more intimidating on the phone than I imagine. But hey – if someone is trying to sell me an idea I am going to test that idea and tests are seldom pleasant.

Post 28, 2009: I do not hate PR

At a Christmas party tonight, a fellow journalist related to me an incident in which a PR approached him and said they did not want to talk to him, as he and I are, in the PR’s opinion, haters of PR.

For the record, I do not hate PR.

I do, however, resent the fact that much PR is practiced thoughtlessly and in ways that frustrates me, wastes my time or hinders my ability to do my job. I resent this bitterly for two reasons:

  1. Many of my encounters with PR people represent known worst practices that the PR industry and senior practitioners repudiate
  2. Basic mistakes continue to be made with horrible regularity

I am not the only journalist that thinks this way. If you ever get a chance to be a fly on the wall when journos get together, you’ll hear very similar complaints to those mentioned on this blog.

I am, however, one of a few very small number of journalists to blog about their feelings.

But not for long.

I’ve been mining this vein for a while now and have become tired of doing so, largely due to point 2 above which shows I am not having much impact.

So at the end of the year I shall take this blog in a new direction.

But before I go, I will exhaust my thinking on PR before moving on to some new ideas I want to explore. I will continue to document my experience of a working journalist’s relationship with PR in other fora.