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.

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One thought on “Post 29,2009. Dialog.

  1. It’s really interesting reading your experiences dealing with PR folks. Many many years ago, when I was fresh out of college, and working in the PR field, I think I committed many of the faux pas you described here.

    Back then, I was so green in the gills, I barely understood why I was desperately calling irate and unfriendly journalists everyday, trying to pitch press releases and product events of different clients to a largely uninterested audience (unless it was a newsworthy event or news release).

    All I knew was that we had to produce concrete results to clients, who had the misguided notion that if their news was not getting picked up the media, we as PR folks were not doing our job well enough, and cannot justify our chargeable fees.

    On many occasions, I had to call a specific journalist knowing that he will definitely not be interested, but was compelled to do so by my client, who insisted that I try harder – just try anything to get them in!

    Faced with a very tight deadline of getting a particular news picked up by as many media as possible, some PR folks seldom have time to do specific research on each publication – especially if there is a lot of media to cover, within each industry. That is just for one client, now imagine if you have 5-10 clients in different niches and industries? You will need to be a very experienced PR practitioner of many years of experience familiar with each publication, its editorial writers AND editors, their preferred story angles etc., and who spent way too much time in the office with no social life (well that was my personal experience anyway).

    So yes, I believe both parties do understand the other side very well, unfortunately faced with the constraints of differing and conflicting work scope, it is hard to empathize and create a mutually-tolerant and understanding relationship.

    I have now left the PR field, and am focusing on a career of freelance writing. I doubt I will ever go back to PR, having made the switch to the other side of the fence. Journalism is equally as challenging as PR, but far more rewarding and spiritually enriching.

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