Hello to colleagues from ITJ/Mediaconnect… before reading this, bear in mind that although it’s an impassioned diatribe (written after perhaps one too many late evening coffees), it was really intended to simply be a statement about how it is to be a journalist engaging with PR. I wasn’t intending to criticise or moralise — I’ve benefited from trips and I enjoy a robust engagement with PRs and vendors. But I still think the central thesis of the post is valid — that it can be quite an odd feeling to be the recipient of intense outpourings of butter-uppery from PRs. Is it a bad thing? No. Is it odd to experience? Yes.
I’ve been doing journalism long enough now to no longer feel like a new starter… professionally since 2003, and for Whirlpool.net.au from 1999.
Sometimes, though, I sit back and have a moment of stunning realisation what a bizarre world journalism is — not bizarre because of the journalism itself, but bizarre because of the intense fawning, cajoling flattery from the staggeringly vast army of PR professionals that spend their days sucking up as hard as they possibly can to journalists.
When I say a huge army, I mean a really massive number of them. It feels like there are at least 50 PRs to each journalist. Sometimes when I stand at the bus stop in Druitt St, Sydney, I look at the crowd of often very well dressed people around me and can’t help wondering what proportion of them are PRs. Given the largest publishers and PR firms are all centred in the same area of the Sydney CBD, I wouldn’t be surprised if quite a lot of the 7.00 PM crowd are PRs on their way home to Balmain.
These people, who, in some PR practices, charge as much per hour as lawyers, are usually absolutely stunningly good looking, charming, charismatic people. They’re impeccably dressed, they know all about you even though you may not have a clue who they are (apart from a vague glimmer of a memory that you might have met them some time in the past), and they are deadset focused on making you feel fantastic about how good you are.
There are certain journalists in the industry who really thrive on this and love socialising with the PRs, even going so far as to organise weekly drinks (on the PR companies’ tab) because they enjoy socialising with the hot chicks who make them feel loved.
I’ve had to step back myself many, many times and ask myself mid-way through a conversation with a PR: is this person being enthusiastically positive towards me because they like me and enjoy talking to me, or because they simply want something from me?
Of course, in most cases, they simply want coverage from me. But on a psychological level, it’s weird, because the way they present themselves is literally designed to appeal to the admiration receptor in your brain.
I suppose it’s no different to any industry where there is big money to be made and a relatively small group of “opinion leaders” influencing purchasers. There’s a strong parallel in the enormous sales force of stunning pharmaceutical sales people who call upon doctors and do their best to professionally seduce them as best they can.
I’ve often wondered if PR people are simply naturally charismatic, or whether they really strategise about the sucking up.
For example, if they can ingratiate themselves enough with you on a personal level to make you feel guilty about bagging their client’s product, then they’ve already got a little hold over you.
If they can make you feel like they’re a fair dinkum friend, mate, and also enthuse you about their client’s product, you might move from writing positive to glowing reviews. And that is what achieves sales results for clients… when a journalist writes a persuasive, glowing review, the products start flying off the shelves.
Tangent: I’m aware that at this juncture, some drone at Telstra might be copying and pasting quotes from this post to use against me at some point in the future (“isn’t it an odd coincidence, Dan, that you give such positive reviews to Singtel Optus … how many of their PR people are you personal friends with? In your blog post of 18 August 2007, you said yourself that journalists can be influenced by…” yaddi yadda. So, give it a rest boys, it’s predictable and not going to get you anywhere.)
(And, incidentally, that is not the slightly paranoid writings of a jaded journalist — my contact with Telstra is along these sorts of veiled threatening lines on a weekly basis. Telstra operates on the opposite of the rest of the entire PR industry worldwide — it seems to believe that antagonising journalists as much as possible will, through some twisted sort of reverse-psychology, achieve results, though I’m yet to see any indication that it does anything other than raise the heckles of journalists and make them scrutinise Telstra more fiercely.)
So far I’ve only discussed the fawning buttering-up … there’s also the extraordinary freebies and gold-plated service that journalists get.
International trips. Every time you see that little line on an article, “XYZ attended ZYX as a guest of Big Massive Rich Company,” that translates to “All expenses on this trip were paid for, including business class flight, six star hotel accommodation, breakfast, lunch and dinner, ground transport and generous dollops of caviar and chocolate mousse.”
There are also journos in the industry who spend a large chunk of their year — in some cases, the majority — flying round the world on the IT industry’s corporate travel account, lapping up the luxury.
I must admit, I’m exaggerating a little… most companies nowadays fly journos economy, but there are still quite a few business class tickets being issued, and I’m certainly not complaining. Economy class flights to the US make me feel like a small part of me has died each time I take one (and given my surgical history, it’s entirely possible that there’s a granuloma of truth in that.)
I’m not being judgmental here, by the way, I’m just saying how it is. I’ve been the recipient of numerous overseas trips and of course I’m not complaining about someone else picking up the tab for me to travel to parts of the world I’ve never seen before. Plus, put me in front of execs who are involved in the creation of products, and I can always find numerous story angles … getting access to these people is invaluable.
But at the same time, I do wonder if the reading public really comprehends what that little line at the end of articles really means — a trip worth $10,000 – $15,000.
And aside from travel, if a journo ever has any sort of problem with a tech company on a personal level, it only takes a call to the PR to have it sorted in no time flat. I know from my history in corporate affairs that often, when a journo calls up with a personal request, it’s met behind the scenes with incredulity and irritation (after all, a highly paid, busy reputation consultant is going to waste an hour on an irritating customer service issue), but the journo never sees any of it. All they hear is purring consolation from the PR and a promise to get the problem fixed instantly.
It does actually make sense to fix journos’ problems immediately — it removes the problem from their lives and virtually eradicates the possibility that they’ll write a story about how abjectly crap a company’s service is. Nothing turns off prospective customers like stories of bad service (and it can often start a snowball-effect series of coverage from other customers who feel compelled to write to publications and relate their bad experiences, too.)
As a matter of principle, I always go through customer service along with every other customer in my first and second attempts to get a problem fixed. But sometimes, when I’m hitting a brick wall with some moronic customer service person who doesn’t know what they’re doing (like the telco guy who tried to tell me Blackberry Internet Service wasn’t able to download from GMail because I didn’t have my Exchange Server configured correctly), it seems like it might be doing other customers a favour to call the PR and let them know about the breakdown in customer service. Of course, it’s a privilege that the general public doesn’t get.
And the last weapon of the PR industry: deep discounts and ‘long term review product loan’. The latter is a PR industry codeword for “freebie”, but because the ownership never actually transfers to the journalist, and the company could ask for it back at any time, it sort of falls within the ethical boundaries of journalism.
The discounts are generally in the order of 15-50% on anything — essentially the manufacturers sell direct to journalists at the same price that they provide products to distributors, who then apply a profit margin and sell to shops, who then apply a profit margin, and sell to customers.
The discounts and loaners are justified by the argument that a tech journo needs to have access to products in order to be able to write knowledgeably about them, and they couldn’t possibly afford to buy them all at full retail price themselves on the money journalists earn.
There is some truth in that, actually — it’s difficult to thoroughly evaluate a product in a two week loan period when you have 30 other products to look at and are really, really busy. Sometimes ‘owning’ a product is what it takes to really appreciate the ins and outs of the product.
However, I presume that behind the gauze curtain, behind the scenes at PR agencies, they’re advising their clients that a certain amount of favour can be bought with journalists by giving them discounts and long-term product loans. I think the reality is that since every company does it, no one company achieves favour over another company.
So, as I draw to the close of this cathartic rant, I imagine you’re thinking, “so how affected are journalists by this squadron of PR people, and what about Dan in particular?”
Well, the interesting thing is that over the years I’ve noticed the sucking up has died off a bit. I imagine that most journos who’ve been doing it for more than a few years would probably say they’ve experienced the same thing. Over time, I reckon PRs get your measure and figure out whether the suck-uppage is worth the trouble. I think they’ve figured out with me that while it can certainly improve the quality of conversation at cocktail events, it’s not going to make a whit of difference to what I write.
I do have a tendency to make some companies very happy but then completely piss them off soon afterwards. What they need to realise is that there’s a strong correlation between the quality and value of their products or services and what I write… rather than a correlation between how gushing their PRs are.
As my unreal boss, Tony Sarno sometimes muses at me across his desk, “you’re an enigma, Dan… you’re so mild mannered and friendly, and yet you are an incorrigable rottweiler*.”
* that last word changed for the sake of decency.
I think it probably does take a particularly resilient PR to put up with my nibble-gnawing pestering when it comes to consumer issues, but full credit to those who do. If they fix the problem in their business, it will actually help them in the long run. Seems obvious to me, but not obvious to certain large companies.
The other side of it: threats and bullying
Although it’s kinda obvious, many companies don’t seem to understand the basic business model of publishing. The journalists build up an audience of loyal readers who feel well served by what the journalists write about. The advertising sales people sell access to those eyeballs to advertisers, who get to present whatever message they want, unabridged, within the confines of their advertising space.
Put it this way: if I piss off a vendor, I will not get in trouble, as long as I have been fair and accurate. On the other hand, if I piss off readers, and they stop reading what I write, I will get in trouble.
Companies do sometimes act vindictively to try to exert pressure on journalists. They don’t realise that this is short-sighted and won’t have any positive effect at all, simply because, there’s always a large number of their competitors lining up to get ear-time with the same journalist.
It doesn’t stop them though. I’ve had my access summarily deleted from a beta testing program because a company decided to invoke a non-disclosure clause I’d never agreed to (it was in a click-through agreement for the beta program, but my account was set up by the company) after I wrote an embarrassing story about them. This was after about 100 less-embarrassing stories about the very same beta products.
I’ve had a company defame me, and then come in the week after for coffee and a product presentation.
I’ve had companies unsubtly threaten to contact a publication I write for as a freelance writer, to raise “factual inaccuracies” in my article — presumably thinking that I’ll be worried about losing ongoing work. (In the most recent case, the PR presumably thought I might be worried about him contacting the publication over my use of the words “considerable success” when referring to the entire segment of the marketplace constituting the products that compete with his company’s.)
And then there are the companies that try to get to the journalists through the most commercial avenue of all — by cancelling all their advertising.
Of course, no publisher likes to see a big chunk of revenue go AWOL, but there’s a famous story within Cons Press about a time when one of our magazines was running ongoing coverage about a serious deficiency in Company A’s products, and Company A threatened to cancel its (multi-million dollar) advertising campaign. Cons Press stood firm and lost the advertising, but was later told by Company B and C that if Cons Press had suppressed the critical articles, company B and C would have cancelled their advertising, which, combined, was considerably more valuable than company A’s. A great example of the free market regulating itself, though I imagine the same does not necessarily apply to small publishers who regularly sell “advertising and editorial” packages, or simply squash negative articles to keep advertisers happy.
Well, that’s it, I think I’m out of puff now. I’d be interested in the observations of other journos within the industry… and PRs for that matter.
One last thing. Although my comments above do paint PRs as being generally, well, insincere, I would like to add that I have genuine respect for a lot of the PRs in the industry. I won’t name names, because inevitably I’ll leave out people who should be on the list, but there are some truly excellent people working for some of the large companies who do not bullshit, fawn or threaten.
I count a few of them as personal friends, and the genesis of that friendship came about because I felt I could really trust them and be certain that they weren’t simply manipulating me because they wanted something from me. The best PRs talk to me honestly when I ask them questions — giving me the truth of the situation ‘off the record’, and running the risk that they’d be fired and disbarred from PR if their companies knew that they’d disclosed it — and then giving me the officially quotable answer.