Saturday, June 20, 2009

PR Peeves

In my business writing, it's become inevitable that I must interact with a lot of publicists and press relations' people.

As an old-school journalist who grew up on newspaper staffs, I prefer to deal with sources directly. But that's becoming less easy to do as more business owners, authors and consultants hire PR people to market them and their services to the press and the public.

For the most part, I've learned to work with PR people efficiently. And they often help track down sources and schedule interviews that would take me a lot of time and effort to do myself.

But there are some pet peeves that arise again and again - not only for me but for many journalists - in dealing with publicists.

So here are a few "do's and don'ts":

1) Don't over-promise. (This just happened to me, so it tops the list.) The publicist pitches a fascinating interview with specific details on what the source will be discussing. I plan a story, notify my editor and do the interview. But it turns out that the source doesn't speak to those details or hasn't actually done that research or doesn't quite have that expertise. Now I have spent time that I don't get paid for (as a freelancer), I have to kill the story with my editor and scramble for something new on deadline. Ouch.

2) Do be available. This isn't a huge problem for me these days, but when I was a beat reporter on a daily deadline, I needed to get a hold of sources immediately. I can't tell you how many times the publicist didn't answer the phone and couldn't be found in the office, all while I sweated and chewed my nails as an editor screamed at me to file the damned story already. If you're not readily available by phone or email, give out your cell phone number and answer it.

3) Do get the details right. A publicist recently misspelled her clients' name, which was also the company name, in some background she sent me prior to an interview. I have a reflexive habit of double-checking spellings, but this was the one time I didn't remember to do so. Issuing a correction is never fun.

4) Don't neglect to mention that someone else at the publication is already working on the story a reporter asks about. There's nothing more humiliating than turning in a piece and having the editor inform you that Joe Jones in Metro just finished a thumb-sucker on the same topic, or is working on it for Sunday. I try to read everything that appears in the publications I write for, but I don't always succeed. And I'm not privy to what other reporters are working on, since I'm not in the office. Letting me know saves me time, wasted effort and embarrassment.

5) Don't insist on "listening in" on even the most mundane interviews. This practice, unheard of a few years ago, is becoming ubiquitous with the rise of conference call services and I find it supremely annoying - grumpy curmudgeon that I am. I know you want to babysit your client and bill them for your time, but it wastes my time with the convolutions of conferencing everyone in and making formal introductions and blah, blah, blah. Reporters are perfectly capable of calling sources and interviewing them all by themselves - and we can do it quicker and easier without two or three other people on the line, chiming in with "helpful comments." If we need some background that the source doesn't have, we'll ask for it. Really.

Okay, my rant for the day is done.


  1. As a client, I say Bravo to #5. Babysitting it is, and expensive at that. What they are doing...reading e-mail, knitting, or whatever...on these calls - while the meter is running is just another way that firms churn fees. Bad business.

  2. Sooo true. Every pr person and journalist should read this blog entry. Label it closing the gap but not quite there yet.

  3. I appreciate the labor u have put in developing in this blog. Nice & Informative, keep it up!!!!!!!!!

  4. You know, Barbara, I could see it in cases where there's a difficult situation and a complex or hostile interview is anticipated. But to insist on listening in routinely - in my case even on short, rather mundane informational interviews - just seems ridiculous for everyone concerned.

    Thanks, Steve and Adam!