PR through the looking glass

Tonight was the last in the CIPR guest lecture series at Leeds Met, and it was probably my favourite one so far (although the others were equally brilliant). The lecture was presented by Rob Pittam, a former BBC business correspondent and journalist who has, as they say, come over to the dark side, and now runs his own PR company Robin Hood Media in Nottingham. Here’s the reason it was my favourite one so far – from the moment we start our degree at university, we are told that PR and journalists do not get on, that we are not to like journalists – they are just someone we must endure, but not befriend. (Isn’t PR about building relationships?) And also, this has always been something that has bugged me – surely PR and journalism need eachother? It was refreshing to get insight from a former journalist who is now in PR – someone who has been on both sides of the ‘looking glass’ and was able to describe in depth and with complete knowledge what it is like to be on either side – and what it is like to work together.

One of Robs first comments, having only been in PR for 8 months “I work in PR, but I feel a bit of a fraud – I know more about journalism than I ever did PR!” However, as the lecture went on it was clear that Robs knowledge of journalism and his contacts makes him a fantastic PR consultant. Rob started off his lecture with some fantastic pieces of knowledge of this turbulent world of PR and journalism – “It is wrong to think that PR and journalism are two sides of the same coin. They are two alternative worlds which both want different things – which is normally where the conflict begins!” – although great, also scary knowledge – can we never get along? are journalists scary creatures who will bite our heads off everytime we pick up the phone?

However – Rob quickly outlined that if we ensure we avoid these ‘PR don’ts, then everyone will get along just fine (in an ideal world..);

  • Don’t send out press releases then go on holiday – If a journalist is interested in a press release, then he will follow you up on it – so make sure your available, otherwise its going in the bin!
  • Never promise something you can’t deliver to get them to turn up – Rob gave a great example of this. McDonald’s asked an organisation to come along and interview Theo Walcott’s mum. The PR agency jumped on this – the organisation were currently running a piece about how much it is to finance an athlete child as a parent. The PR company promised the organisation that Theo Walcotts mum was going to talk about the money she has spent on his career, what it was like when he was growing up etc. When they turned up – she had no idea about this. She simply said “I am just here to promote McDonald’s”. (An athlete’s mum, promote McDonald’s, ethics?)
  • Keep on the right side of the journalist while they are there – Make them a cup of tea!
  • Be upfront and honest from the start – Don’t lie to the journalist, they will find out!
  • Be honest, open and respectful

Rob described journalists as dedicated and talented – “It is a hard job to get into and it is terrible pay. They do it because they love it.” He provided some extremely useful tips on how to work well with a journalist and how to get them to publish your press release over others. This was extremely helpful as a 2nd year PR student as we are constantly struggling with the notion that we have to get our press releases published in national newspapers – when most of us mainly always face rejection!

  • Journalists want interesting, high agenda leading stories. Motivate the journalist by making your story interesting
  • Journalists are working under tremendous pressure – the more information you can give them, the easier it is
  • If you write your press release well enough, it will be published word for word. There is no time to change it!
  • Write straight and simple press releases. “We don’t want fancy sentences or funny lines – that is our job. We just want facts, facts, facts. The notes for editors are extremely helpful and extremely important. A nice headline always helps as well.”

Going back to my earlier point, Rob highlighted that “In this looking glass world, both sides are distorted. Although they hate to admit it, journalists need PR and PR needs journalists.” This is what I have always believed. Journalists need us for breaking news and interviews with clients – we need journalists to get us the coverage our clients need. Without eachother we would be lost – so why can’t we admit it and all be friends – surely it would make all our lives a lot easier?

“Is there such thing as bad publicity?” Rob said yes. His example – Gary Glitter. “It’s a bit hard to get good PR for him” – cue laughter from the audience! But it’s true – of course bad publicity exists. In a world where passive audiences do not exist, and discussion is bigger than it has ever been with the help of social media – even good publicity can be turned to bad publicity.

So how do we turn bad publicity into good publicity? “If you have bad news to tell, don’t be shy about telling it. Be honest and open and you can never be condemned.” Fantastic advice from Rob – but if we are honest all the time – can it go completely wrong? Is that why PR people are accused of being liars and spin doctors, to avoid bad publicity?

On a final note, rob said “As long as you have honesty and substance, and you are open and respectful to everyone you deal with, you will get through the looking glass world that is the media.” So there you go – the world of PR and journalism is a distorted and often turbulent one but with rob’s advice PR professionals can learn to understand journalists and work with them better.

Posted in PR

3 thoughts on “PR through the looking glass

  1. I’m glad you enjoyed the guest lecture and I’m glad you shared this by blogging.

    Since I’m probably the person who warned you about journalists at the start of the course, allow me to defend myself.

    In teaching – as in PR – messages can get lost in transmission. My intention was to encourage good practice and to discourage the mindless ‘spam’ that so irritates all journalists.

    Like Rob, I feel that good PR is valuable to good journalism. But poor practice gives us all a bad name.

  2. Fascinating lecture and blog!

    Speaking as a first year student, still coming to grips with the realities of the relationship between PR & Journalism, it was refreshing to get a different perspective, and how we can work to improve it in the future.

    He mentioned briefly the increasing pressures and challenges facing Journalism as a profession, a topic of which Nigel Green expresses great passion and debate in my Research & Writing module. Perhaps this is the reason behind his defection to the ‘dark side.’

    Nevertheless, he was eager to defend the credentials of the press release in traditional print media, in response to the question ‘do you think press releases are redundant?’ outlining his prevalent journalistic virtues.

    A great lecture to end the series.

  3. Richard, I wouldn’t necessarily say it was you who warned us about journalists, as I think you only took me for one or two lectures last year! The way I have written it sounds like someone has sat us down and told us that journalists are horrible people who we should hate – I don’t mean that (as you say, lost in translation) but that was the general vibe throughout our teaching that I personally felt.

    Sean – yes I found the issue about the traditional press release becoming out of date very interesting. It was interesting to hear that Rob thought that the traditional press release is still very valuable – and is a great help to Journalists. I also really liked his tips on how to write a press release a journalist is going to publish – something all us students find an uphill struggle for our portfolios!

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