Ten things I hate about you…
Every journalist has a gripe about dealing with PR people – but what irritates the gatekeepers? Genevieve Roberts and Ian Burrell hear their tales from the ‘moral low ground’
I understand journalists’ priorities, but there is a real lack of respect for the craft of PR, which unfortunately wallows in pseudo-truths. I occasionally wish journalists would not lump us all into the same cesspool. I decry the willingness, by everyone, to hide behind texts and e-mails when phone calls were once a required form of communication. As Peter Drucker, the management writer, said: “The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.”
Chief executive of Editorial Intelligence and editor of Where the Truth Lies: Trust & Morality in PR and Journalism
I’m always horrified if journalists regard themselves as morally superior to PRs. The bane of a PR’s life is a journalist who insists that in order to be a “good” journalist they must ward off “bad” PR. The truth is we are all in the same business, but with differences that must be respected on both sides.
They never buy dinner, always exaggerate the truth, always blame someone else and I’m always there when they need me. I take all journalists with a pinch of salt – and only take pepper with my meals.
Head of PR at Cake
On any given day, we have hundreds of conversations with journalists on behalf of clients such as the V Festival, Nintendo, Reebok and Carling, so you could say that we’ve got a pretty high tolerance level. We understand what they are looking for and deliver on time. Getting annoyed isn’t something that happens very often. When it does, it’s typically because we’re struggling to synchronise the news agenda with the corporate or brand agenda. There are times when we simply don’t have sign-off on a particular piece of information. At which point the writer has the choice of submitting an incomplete piece, or waiting until we manage to unblock the issue with the client. Resolving this type of situation will always be a priority for a good PR, and it might help the journalist’s stress levels to be more understanding of the context within which we operate.
Partner in Luther Pendragon
There are two things that annoy PRs: first, breaking embargoes, which still happens. You have to have a level of trust between PRs and journalists, even though there is going to be some suspicion. The second thing is running a story without giving a client proper opportunity to comment – with a response of “no comment” when they asked two minutes before filing.
Indecision would be one thing that annoys me – editors who agree and then change their mind. I may be doing something with a client and two, three or four things off the back of that. Then, a few days later, they have a change of heart. With features and news editors I understand, because they do not have the power. But if I make an arrangement with an editor and then it falls down because they change their mind, that can cause aggravation. Piers Morgan was always very good at saying yes or no. It is getting harder for a journalist to be honest: as competition becomes fiercer, people tend to say what they want you to hear. Journalists are becoming increasingly dishonest – PRs always have been.
easyJet press office manager
EasyJet press office is available 24/7 so we’re always there to help. It’s very frustrating to come across reports about serious subjects but we have not been asked what our position is.
Head of corporate communications at Lastminute.com
Journalists have a real knack of being rude, even if they call you for information. Quite often, if the journalist is working for the newsdesk they tend to dumb down commercial issues that affect the story, or gloss over business concerns. So many journalists leave it until the last minute to get information (which may sound a strange gripe coming from our company), and ask for a response within an hour – even if they may have known about the story all day.
I find very little irritating about journalists. When I was younger, I was a journalist on a music paper, and aspired to be a journalist. I do expect basic professionalism and for journalists to have at least read the biography of the person they are interviewing, rather than their opening question being: “What is the name of your new record?” But it is rare that anyone is this sloppy. You want people to check stories with you, but very occasionally you will see a story in a tabloid that you were unaware of. At least if you can warn a client, it shows you are proactive, and if it is an upsetting story, they can warn their family.
The only annoying thing is when journalists have a pre-conceived notion that a PR man is the devil, and we are not worthy of sitting at the same table as them. There are fewer narrow-minded journalists now, but it is annoying when some people do not seem to realise that we have anything valid to contribute to a news story or debate.
The Prince of Wales’ former spokesman
The most annoying thing is when journalists put a false proposition to you in order to get a reaction and manufacture a story out of it, and then get on their most pompous high horse when you refuse to react, or accuse them of just trying to invent a story.
It was always a power struggle as to whether the PR or the journalist was in control. The most annoying thing is a journalist asking for an exclusive, and then the story not running. No one can control that – if a big story breaks, then you lost the space. In my day, journalists could expect a lot of freebies. People would think the fashion cupboards of top magazines were their own wardrobe. Or a fashion editor would say something bad about a designer, and the journalist would be blacklisted for a couple of seasons, which was awkward. When I was organising London Fashion Week I formed a press committee of senior fashion journalists, so the PRs, journalists and designers were all working together. But I think it is important that PRs and journalists do not get too chummy to the detriment of getting the real story out.
The Glen Yearwood Group
It’s when they see the headlines in their mind’s eye before they’ve even checked the facts. Deadlines are no excuse for running something that has not been properly checked out. This is especially true when the stories concern sensitive issues such as race, when misreporting can have serious consequences, like the riots in Birmingham that led to the deaths of two people.
Radio industry PR
It’s when journalists act like they don’t need you and treat you like you’re a pain in the neck. A good PR is helping out a journalist. Yes, you may have an agenda but it’s annoying when the journalist treats you with disdain when you know you have actually got something that might help them.
My favourite one is blaming the subs. Or the night shift. They say, “It was absolutely in there when I filed my copy, the bloody sub took it out” or, “The night editor must’ve had strange ideas about it.” It’s like a get-out-of-jail-free card for journalists.
Ian Monk Associates
The inability of some journalists to move away from the stereotype they have created of the person they are writing about. Sympathy for, but frustration with, the increasing pressure they are being put under to create something which passes for the news at the expense of the facts. The demise of the news editor who sees it as part of his job to ask if a story is true before printing it. But it would take a lot more words to say what bugs me about most PRs!
MD, Ing Media
Not turning up to events when they have RSVPed yes and then acting like: 1) they never said yes; 2) you didn’t tell them; or 3) they were on deadline. Indecision – saying they are interested in a piece and then 1) never responding when you follow it up; or 2) acting like they can’t ever remember talking to you in the first place. Grumpy – we have a rule of thumb: if someone calls from a newspaper and they are polite and cheerful, it means they are calling from advertising. You rarely get a cold call from a happy journalist. I always thought it was a sunnier place further up the moral high ground. Exclusives – commissioning editors who tell you that they never, ever do a feature unless it’s exclusive. Then you find the same boring person featured in three different papers. Hunting in packs – when you deal with journalists one-on-one and then if they are at an event where there are other journalists around, they act as though they hardly know you. Galling when you know that most of them have all been spoon-fed at one time or another.
Motor sports PR
Journalists don’t understand the functions of a PR. Yes, there are agencies out there promoting orange juice and trying to get a picture in The Sun but then there are corporate PR people, those working with the Government on environmental matters, right through to the strategists attempting to generate understanding of an issue among stakeholders. All these perform types of PR. But if you try to explain that to a journalist they just say, “That’s not PR, mate – just send me a picture and a biog.”
Director of communications
British Medical Association
Opinion masquerading as fact really annoys me and we see more of that now. You find yourself hunting for the fact, but getting to the bottom of the story without discovering it. In terms of TV journalism, I get very annoyed with journalists interviewing other journalists, for want of finding another source. It’s an American thing and we seem to have imported it. You get journalists reviewing the papers, which is cheap and easy but also bizarre. If a businessman was commenting they might give some insight.
Chairman, Chime Communications
I suppose the really irritating thing is when they interrogate you about a subject they know nothing about. I realise how difficult it is to get fully briefed on the range of subjects they have to cover, but it’s irritating when journalists don’t know names of people or the company they’re talking about or even what it does.
Chairman, Weber Shandwick UK Public Affairs, and chief press officer for the Bar Council
My bugbear is what I call the probe device: NGO makes spurious and unfounded allegation against corporate client. Journalist picks it up and calls official body, eg Serious Fraud Office, to ask whether they will investigate. SFO says, “We will look into it”, and, bingo, you have the headline “SFO probe into company X over Y allegations”. Page lead for two to three days. SFO subsequently says there is no case to answer. The latter naturally makes no headlines. Result: client’s reputation unfairly tarnished with little or no prospect of redress. And it never was a story in the first place.
Chief executive, Lansons Communications
Top of the list is the appalling coverage of science and medicine, which varies between unnecessarily scaring people to giving others false hope. Then there’s the pack mentality, most evident in the gleeful witchhunts of government ministers. Or those times when hypocrisy and moral indignation collide – keeping quiet about Kate Moss’s habits for years and then deciding she’s fair game, as if it’s news. Occasionally I long for the ambition of the 1980s when every journalist had a novel or play in their back pocket. I can no longer listen to confrontational interviews – they’re not entertaining. And finally, there are those journalists who think the biggest part of PR is talking to journalists – it isn’t.
Head of media relations, IPC Media
I think it’s those rare occasions when you have to deal with journalists genetically predisposed towards aggression – typically hit-and-run guys on nationals under deadline pressure, who’ve heard a whisper of something and come at you all guns blazing as soon as you innocently pick up the phone. It’s that interrogation-style, staccato questioning that clearly presumes whatever you say is a lie until you fold under pressure and stand their story up – regardless of its veracity.