Public relations pet peeves: IRL examples from a freelance journalist
There are some brilliant public relations professionals, who are such a godsend to work with, that I take all the pins out of my PR voodoo doll, and lie her on a sun lounger with a watermelon martini.
Then there are PR pros who inspire me to jam my voodoo doll’s head in the toilet, after an especially nasty poo.
This is a memo to those PR professionals.
There are minor misdemeanors of course, that fall somewhere in between. Watch out for the following offenses:
- Misspelling the name of your PR firm – especially if this flags the email as spam. “Hello from Fraud [sic] Communications” is one subject line I remember - but incidentally, I didn’t open it.
- Then there’s telling me your flying fishing accessories are perfect for VICE. I’ve received so many emails from PRs keen to convince me their coffee makers would work well for this title, that I’m certain nobody in PR has ever read VICE.
- There are PRs who send me press releases on a Saturday night (I WON’T OPEN THEM).
- PRs who promise me 20 minutes with their client, then cut me off after four.
- PRs who hound me to “confirm” the date of their coverage, as if each email will bring the issue out sooner.
- PRs who resurrect the same email chain to message to me, over several months and various subject matters. For the love of God, start new emails, with new subject headings – PLEASE.
But what are the felonies that push me over the edge? Here, let me give you some IRL anecdotes.
1. Read the copy before complaining.
On more than one occasion, I’ve sent across a PDF of the copy, and the PR contact has messaged back to express their disappointment. “Such a shame the website credit wasn’t included,” and, “a pity there’s no mention of X client,” they say. At which point, I count up the mentions, and email them back to point out there are several – usually more than agreed – as well as the website address.
It’s pretty galling when a PR writes off your efforts as worthless, without even reading the piece properly.
Avoid the pitfall: Don’t be too hasty to send a dispiriting email or next time you’ll get the minimum of mentions and my PR voodoo doll will spend the night in one of my sweaty sneakers.
2. Accept the coverage agreed upon.
On one occasion, after a travel piece appeared online, the PR pro emailed to say she was wondering “when” it was going to run in print. On another occasion, after an interview was published with one title, the PR messaged me about a different title entirely: “I was wondering if X Magazine were running the interview - have they confirmed whether they’ll run parts of it? I know the interview was picked up by Y Magazine, which is great, but our client is asking whether X will publish it.”
In both these cases – and others – I scanned back through the emails. In the first scenario, the subject of print had never been agreed to; in the second, there had been no suggestion that the interview would appear in more than one title – and the name of the other magazine hadn’t come up once. If their client was genuinely expecting the interview to appear in a second magazine, it could only be because the PR had made them false promises.
Avoid the pitfall: I’m crystal clear about what I can deliver and I always keep email chains. Be sure to re-read the chain before asking questions you already know the answer to.
3. Manage your clients.
I had a telephone interview scheduled, with a person in the public eye. The PR contact had arranged it, and given me their client’s mobile number. When I called, at 10 a.m., he didn't know anything about it – and he didn’t sound too pleased. He told me he was on his way to the gym and would call me back between 11-11.30 a.m. He didn't. I called him at 11.45 a.m. and the call was disconnected. On a deadline to interview the guy, I sent him a text asking if he was available to talk that afternoon - I received no response. Eventually I got to speak to him, but the client feeling “door stepped” isn’t the best start to an interview.
Avoid the pitfall: If your client has a telephone interview at 10 a.m., text them a reminder at 9.45 a.m. Remind them who they’re speaking to, which publication it’s for, what the focus of the interview should be, and the number they should expect to see coming up on their phone. Do this and my PR voodoo doll gets a gin and tonic, a takeout menu, and full control of the remote for two nights.
4. Don't try to pin me down to coverage I can't commit to.
A PR professional got in touch recently about a U.S. based celeb doctor, who was launching a range of products. Off the cuff, I suggested he’d be great for vox pops, and asked her to let me know if he planned a trip to the UK, where I’m based. The email chain that followed, made me wish I’d never mentioned it. Here’s a condensed version:
PR: Could you let me know what you would require from him time wise, if you think you could definitely get coverage from it etc.
Me: Let me know when the trip’s definite and I’ll pitch the idea to editors. I can't pitch anything until the trip is confirmed.
PR: Do you have in mind who you would be pitching to, so I can tell the client?
Me: I can't consider this until the trip is confirmed. If you want to give the client a selection of titles I write for, feel free to do that.
PR: So I brief my client correctly, if it’s vox pops does this mean it will be aimed at online rather than print? Or will there be photos that can be pitched to print?
Me: Vox pops were literally just an idea. I have not pitched it to any editor, so nothing is confirmed. Please do not brief your client that this is what he’ll be doing with me. If the trip is confirmed, I can look into it. There is absolutely nothing I can confirm at this stage.
Avoid the pitfall: Don’t set your client up for disappointment by briefing them on a media opportunity that hasn’t been confirmed. Please don't chase me for coverage I can’t guarantee. If you chase me for coverage I can’t guarantee, my PR voodoo doll gains 200 lbs.
5. Don't complain about the rest of the publication's content.
I recently got a PR contact a 2,000 word interview for their client. With photographs, the piece spanned four pages, so it was a decent spread. On the fourth page, there was a cut out box of approximately 300 words, written by someone with an alternative perspective. Instead of thanking me for the quadruple spread, the PR emailed: “Wasn’t expecting the other guy’s opinion in there…”
As a freelancer, there’s no way I’d be consulted on the rest of the magazine’s content – besides which, it’s fairly standard for newspapers and magazines to attempt some sort of balance. It’s usually closer to 50:50, so their client got a great deal.
Avoid the pitfall: Appreciate the coverage you’ve got, instead of complaining about content the journalist has no control over. Try simply saying: “Thank you!” If you do, my PR voodoo doll gets her hair styled by Jennifer Aniston’s hairdresser and a date with Ryan Gosling.
6. Provide the promised photos.
I returned from a press trip and spent a week chasing the PR contact for the photos she’d promised. The feature was due to go live at the weekend, so Friday was the final deadline. I made one last plea for the shots and I was told they were with the client – he needed to approve them, but he was busy. My editor could only use the photos I’d taken – which of course didn’t have the client’s approval – so they’d acted against their own interests. You can read about a similar example of this here. Yep, I wrote about the battle for the photos in the copy – for VICE.
Avoid the pitfall: There are plenty of titles that want to include photographs, but don’t have a budget for a photographer. If you’re given the opportunity to provide photos, make the most of it.
Yikes! Journalists- have any similar stories to share? Let us know on Twitter.
Samantha Rea is a freelance journalist living in London. Her writing is a disarray of filth, food, poker and peccadilloes. She likes an Old Fashioned, and writes travel features for the vitamin D.
Photo: Frustration word via Shutterstock