Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Return of the #prmasterclass. Part 1.

I've been neglecting this blog so I've decided to kick off again with a couple of posts that will thrill the diligent PR folk and freak out the others. First thing to say I don't have some kind of problem with PR people--they can be tremendously important and helpful. In a best case scenario they identify interesting stories in the weeds of a company or university, polish and find a good home for it.

Having been on the receiving end of bids of all kinds though, it remains and open question whether they, on balance, make my life easier or harder. The great PR people are diluted by large numbers who are thrilled to direct a giant hose of nonsense my way and have the cheek to ask for feedback or suggestions as to whom else might want to publish their nonsense. Some even mislead or manipulate.

I don't appear on media disks because it encourages too much spam. For a while I tried to discourage the most spammy behaviour with a #spampr hashtag to highlight to clients the wealth of nonsense that agencies were turning out on their behalf (and presumably charging for). This worked for the totally random submissions.

But that still left me stuck with a lot of bad behaviour which just seemed to be part and parcel of the job--after all there are no rules to how to do this. But last December, after one particular PR outrage I was inspired to fire off a torrent of irritable tweets with the hashtag #prmasterclass. Someone from Canale emailed to say how helpful it was. So I'm going to repost the tweets with a few more thoughts in two parts. 

1. Work on your bullshit ratio

Every time you pitch something that is total nonsense, or a send a overly long email of high bandwidth and low information content, you are eroding your value as a source of information. When that client convinces you that you absolutely must pitch something and you know for a fact that the journalist isn't going to be interested you give away a bit of your credibility. Even if you happen to get on well at a personal level with the journalist, don't make the basic error of assuming you can get away with sending them endless reams of information of little practical value. If it is a chore to read your emails then it is something that will fall to the bottom of anyone's To Do list--let alone a busy journalist. Don't go there. 

Journalists figure out who the good PR people are by trial and error. The good ones are rewarded with our time and attention. They know that the currency for knocking on my door is a story, or a good prospect of one. We don't do this job to rub shoulders with their clients (who mostly we are unimpressed by) or have a free lunch. There. Has. To. Be. A. Story. And if you don't see that, you shouldn't be wasting my time.

The good PR people know what I'm interested in, read what I/we write and rarely waste my time. Their payoff is that I answer their questions, take their calls and will even tell them broadly what I'm interested in at the moment. They know I'm looking for unique, new stories and themes to tell my smart, globally connected audience. They understand that a story is rarely about one widget or company but an idea. So how do you get into this exclusive set of loved PR people? By keeping the bandwidth low, being selective about what they send and knowing what they are talking about.

2. Stop sucking up to clients

Tell them how it is. Show them the actual stories that run in The Economist. If their request for coverage is unrealistic tell them so. You can even refer to the sorts of stories that I write (check my Linked in page for recent clips or this blog) in order to back up you up (and hone your pitch). 

3. Know what you are talking about

In health and science, and most technical subjects, PR folk who know what they are talking about are worth their weight in gold. If a pitch grabs my attention they can answer questions about it straight away and I can make a decision on the spot about my level of interest in pursuing it. A PR person who is able to answer questions has a chance of converting a spark of interest into something more tangible. Even if they don't know the answer they know how to get it quickly.

One infuriating situation is being pitched something, by phone or email, and responding with a reasonable question and being told "I don't know but I can arrange a call with the CEO/CTO etc...". The reason this is infuriating is that it means I have to take a call to find out if what you have told me is bullshit or not. Which, sadly, chances are that it is. So newsflash: I'm not going to take that call. So your choice is simple, either be ready and willing to answer a follow-up question related to what you have sent or don't bother sending me the press release in the first place.

Lastly, one of my pet peeves is asking a question and then having a NON-ANSWER emailed back three or four days later. Hate it. With government agencies you expect it. When following up a press release from a company or university it is annoying.

4. Don't email or ring with stupid requests. Don't ask for feedback on your awful pitch. 

These include asking me to complete surveys. I'm busy. No.

Don't ever ring up to ask whether I'm going to cover a story you sent via email unless you or your client has hand crafted and typed every single word to me personally. If you have sent a press release out by email, and followed up by email, and I have not replied it is quite likely I'm not going to do it.

This is what will happen if you ask for feedback for your awful pitch:

"Well for one thing is sounds really dull and worthy and nonscientific and possibly even largely made up. A "case study in healing" sounds like totally flaky nonsense. Another thing the pitch also looks as though you have never even opened a copy of The Economist and have no idea who we write for or what they might be interested in. You also confuse a subject with a story. This is a junior error of PR/journalism that you need to figure out. I'm surprised. Generally when people put in pitches this bad they don't ask for feedback--they just sent it because the client told them to."

Don't try to make me feel guilty for not being interested in your story or for telling you it isn't interesting if you do insist on asking for feedback. That isn't because I'm worried that it will hurt my feelings. You shouldn't do it because it would be a waste of your time and basically unprofessional. See 5. 

5. No, No, No.

Journalists say this a lot. It is the nature of the game. We are not interested in meeting your clients just for the sake of having a meeting. Please don't use us to try and fill up the dance card of a bored exec while they are in town. 

There are exceptions to this rule. 1. There is an actual story to tell and not a retreaded idea that has already been published. 2. we are going to a conference and we have made time in our schedules to catch up with significant people or companies. (Watch my twitter feed for notices about which conferences I'm going to.) 3. I might take a phone call, particularly if the subject is topical. 

Why not send me your client list from time to time? With a one-paragraph description on each client saying what they are doing and what is interesting at the moment (Do they have any news coming? Are they good on a particular subject?) Make it neat, and crunchy with lots of useful information in it. 

The exception to meeting your client story is this: that they have a story or the hope of one. A genuine story. Of the kind that my magazine might actually publish. Not a piece saying how wonderful their company or institution is. Not a retread from another outlet. 

With that I will leave a brief pause and let that sink in before going to Part 2.