I really don’t want this blog to become too much about me and my problems. Whoops, too late.
Let me start over. I don’t want it to be too much what we call in journalism “inside baseball” – that is, too much about a topic that resonates only with those deeply dedicated to its existence. That’s a sure way to lose the reader.
One factor in my favor is that everyone is the bane of someone’s existence, banging on their door and clamoring for attention. Physicians have drug reps. IT executives have computer salespeople. Low-lifes have bailbondsmen. Celebrities have groupies. Writers have public relations people.
To call public relations practitioners the bane of my existence may be too broad a brush, especially since some of my best friends and colleagues – and indeed, some of the most devoted readers of this blog – are indeed in that profession, and some of them provide an invaluable service to me in navigating the maze of corporate sources. (To them, I apologize.)
No, I’m really talking about people who think they’re practicing public relations, but who in reality are never going to get good at it. They’re likely to be new minted employees who neither have the experience, the technical depth, nor the critical thinking skills to push back against their bosses and clients who direct them to employ time-wasting tactics of inaccuracy and misdirection.
My favorite example: I once got a call from one of these chirpy youngsters asking me if I was familiar with her client. Since I’d been covering the company for about three years, I told her that if she had to ask me that question, I probably knew more about her client than she did. I called her boss – with whom I thought I’d had a good relationship – to ask why I was receiving such a useless call. She replied – and this still drops my jaw decades later – that she couldn’t waste her time briefing her staff on every journalist they were assigned to call. “Oh,” I said. “But it’s okay to waste my time.”
But I realize that’s still all a little too inside baseball. So I’m going to try and give you a sense of why these people are the bane of my existence by extrapolating what they do to me to situations everyone might encounter.
What PR People Do: The moment you have written about a particular topic or technology, they will write you and say, “I read your story about chicken plucking. You really should write about the way my client does chicken plucking.”
Real-World Equivalent: A car salesman calling you and saying, “I see you’ve just bought a car. Would you like to buy another one?”
What PR People Do: They seem to get so desperate to sell their client that, even though what the client does is only tangentially involved with what you write about, they think that this is the one time you’ll make an exception and write about them.
Real-World Equivalent: Your travel agent saying, “I know you always go to Hawaii, but wouldn’t you like to try Mongolia this year?”
What PR People Do: Especially in technology, they’ll pitch you on something when they’re really not quite sure what it is. Invariably, they get it wrong.
Real-World Equivalent: A waitress offering you a milkshake, except that it’s made without milk and with some non-dairy variant of ice cream.
What PR People Do: If you show even an iota of interest, they will – without asking your permission – add you to (1) the client’s mailing list, so you get every trivial press release it issues; (2) the mailing list of every other agency client, so ditto; and (3) who knows what other mailing lists.
Real-world Equivalent: Junk mail hell. Everyone has experience with this. We’ve lived in this house for 11 years, and we still get junk mail addressed to the previous owner.
What PR People Do: After they send you an e-mail that you’ve ignored because it’s so completely inappropriate, they’ll follow up with either another e-mail or, worse, a phone call to see if you got the e-mail.
Real-World Equivalent: The jerk who gets turned down when he asks you out calls back and says, “I know you said no when I asked you for a date, but I’m asking again just in case you find me less creepy this time.”
The underlying reason why this is a problem: PR people don’t get compensated for actually getting their clients publicity. They get paid for their attempts at getting their clients publicity. So it really doesn’t behoove them to focus on quality, as long as they can still get paid for quantity. As long as they can show that they contacted a writer, that’s all that counts. You know all those awards kids get in school now for participating, rather than winning? Those were the brainchild of PR people.
The irony of all this is that I worship the PR people who bring me great story ideas. In my field, everyone’s looking for great content. It’s the same in the real world – people want to know about the latest restaurants, the coolest movies, the hottest books. But I can’t get these other folks to see that they’re wasting my time and theirs, and worst of all, making it less likely that I’m going to pay attention to their clients’ message, not more.