Thoughts on public relations (Part 1)

So here we are again. Last time I tried to knock the dust off this blog, it was to announce that I’d parted ways with The Register and would be moving on to my next chapter, whatever that would be. And then … silence.

Mea culpa. What happened was things got busy again fairly quickly. I decided to accept a new position, one that was different from anything I’d done before. I took a job at a public relations firm.

It certainly was a change. I’ve never had a company issue a press release about hiring me before, and nobody has ever interviewed me about my new job – although I suppose neither should have surprised me, given the industry in question.

I ended up staying in the role for 12 months, almost to the day. Now I’m on my own again, and itching to get back into editorial writing. I do expect to continue to do some communications work, albeit in a consulting capacity. The most interesting part of the experience for me, though, was the inside look it gave me at the other side of the tech media circus, a side I’d never investigated before.

As journalists, our relationship with the “flacks” – as PR pros are known – is ambivalent at best. They claim to offer “access,” but just as often they’re an obstruction that keeps us from getting the honest information we need for our stories. Still, for all the times I’ve been asked what it’s like to work on the “dark side,” I never saw it that way and I do even less so now.

On the contrary, what I’ve gained from my adventures in PR are some observations that I think are worth pondering for both sides of the media business.

1. Journalists and PRs don’t really understand each other

In fact, “sides” isn’t really the right word. Life in a newsroom and life at an agency are comparable, yet also very different. In a newsroom, you’re perpetually on deadline. At an agency, you’re marking off client-billable time, often in 15-minute increments. Journalists who feel harassed by PRs should realize that flacks aren’t working on their own schedules; they’re on the client’s. (In other words, don’t hate the player, hate the game.)

Similarly, a news reporter can’t control what stories will break today. That’s why PR questions like “why wasn’t he interested in this story” or “why won’t she respond to my emails” are ultimately pointless. PRs need to understand that as much as journalists like good stories, their operational reality is all about time management. There isn’t a media pro on Earth who’s unfamiliar with the phrase “do more with less.” Sometimes they just can’t cover a story.

Journalists really hate it, though, when PRs hound them. They hate it even more when PRs make seemingly ridiculous requests. Asking them to change stories that contain no factual errors is stepping on a landmine. Reporters and editors should have a heart in these situations, though, because chances are it’s not the PR who’s asking. It’s probably what I call a “pass-through”: the PR firm has been specifically instructed by the client to make the request, so they do. The flack is probably aware that the request will be shot down and they may have even tried to explain this to the client – but it’s all about choosing your battles.

On the other hand, there’s a game I like to play with PRs, where I ask them what topic they think comes up most often when journalists get together. They always give the same answer: Journalists talk about how much they hate PRs. (That’s right, journo brethren; PRs know we’re not always thrilled to deal with them.) It’s a trick question, though, because that’s the wrong answer. In my experience, what we really talk about is, “What are we going to do after we’ve all lost our jobs?” I believe PRs who can get their heads around that thought – really internalize it – will understand journalists better and, in turn, be much better at their own jobs.

2. Getting stories placed is both harder and easier than ever

Yes, media is a tough racket and it’s not getting any easier. Everyone working in the field is acutely aware of it. What journalists should understand, though, is that this makes things harder for PRs, too. The basic model of pitching stories to reporters in hopes of securing coverage no longer works as well as it once did, and for a simple reason: As newsroom budgets shrink, there just aren’t as many targets for PRs to pitch. Reports of journalists moving on to other roles – as I myself did – seem to arrive weekly.

For PRs, that’s a problem. The ideal goal is to develop “friendlies” for each client: receptive journos who will reliably produce favorable coverage (or at the very least, coverage that isn’t negative). For PRs and their clients, such relationships are extremely valuable. The problem is that they’re not all that valuable for the reporters. Sure, buddying up with a flack might be one way to gain greater access to client execs or even exclusive stories. But in today’s climate, that’s no guarantee of a job. As soon as one of these friendlies is shown the door, or chooses to exit the field, the relationship vanishes and the PR is back to square one.

Little wonder, then, that there’s increasing interest in “owned media”; that is, media that PR agencies generate on behalf of clients and then offer up to media outlets for free. It’s readymade content – a term I loathe, but the only appropriate word for articles that are little more than repackaged marketing materials. It wasn’t until I joined an agency that I realized how many publications now accept such contributed articles. Even outlets that would have scoffed at the practice years ago are doing it.

As a media pro, this bothers me for two reasons. The first is that I’m not sure most casual readers can easily identify when they’re seeing one of these contributed articles. Publications set rules about them – they can’t be blatant product pitches, for example, and typically a company can’t mention its own name more than once, if at all. The irony is that this makes it harder to tell when an article has a specific marketing agenda, which all contributed articles do. They’re seldom even written by the exec whose name is attached to them.

My second gripe is that by providing content to media outlets for free, agencies are contributing to the problem I mentioned earlier, that of shrinking newsroom budgets. When success is measured in terms of clicks or page visits, it matters little whether those clicks are going to legitimate editorial produced by staff writers or to contributed content. As a writer, that bothers me. It bothers me as a reader. And I honestly think it should give PRs some pause, too. In an era when even the New York Times and the Washington Post are accused of being “fake news,” does it benefit any of us – marketers included – to create a tech media landscape where actual fake news becomes the bulk of what’s published?

Until next time…

I have more to say on these subjects, but I think that’s enough food for thought for now. So far, I’ve talked about the relationship between media and PR agencies. Stay tuned for Part 2, when I’ll offer some observations on agencies and the clients they serve. If you’re a reporter and you’ve ever taken a briefing only to find out there’s no story there, I have some thoughts about that. See you then – and if you have any comments, please leave them below.

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