You know what? I don't want to be your client's kibble
In the latest in our series of #hackbugbears, Charles Arthur thinks the PR industry needs a wake-up call.
At present, the practice of PR is full of mistaken ideas. Let's spot a few together…
The first is thinking that email is an essential medium through which you can place stories without doing any more work than drafting a press release, titling your email "Press release", writing "Please find the attached press release" and titling the attached press release as (what else?) "pressrelease.doc".
Yeah, you're laughing, aren't you? I get a couple of those a month though, a statistic that has remained unchanged for at least ten years.
The second is thinking that "a follow-up call" will magically make me interested in what you wrote. Yes, I know that it's the client who wants you to make that call so you can put a little mark in the column next to my name, show them you sent the press release and then followed it up.
You know what? I don't want to be your client's kibble. Every journalist I know *hates* those calls. Every PR person I know hates making them. Feel free to print this out and "accidentally" leave it on your client's desk. Just because they're checkbox-obsessed doesn't mean the rest of us have to be. Your time and mine would be better spent considering one of the points below.
The third mistake many make is adding my email address to your mailing list because once upon a time I wrote a story somewhat tangentially related to something one of your clients did. For some reason, lots of art galleries think I'm fascinated in their new openings, judging by the emails I get from them, as do lots of wannabe bands.
Guess what? I mark those as spam, with prejudice. Once I've marked your email on my "mark as spam, delete at once" list, you never come off it, because I can't be bothered to go over it. Having a big mailing list does not equate with having a big readership, or influence.
A fourth mistake would be those who think they have *a story* for me and then ring me up (or email and tweet) breathlessly to say so.
Here's the thing: unless it's about how the chief executive of your client has been embezzling millions, or that their business used forced labour to make its products, what you actually have for me is *an announcement*. The difference between *an announcement* and *a story* is that an announcement is a statement of fact. A story has the following: identifiable personalities, some sort of tension between the existing state and the future state, and something having changed about that tension.
It's the difference between "Company X launches product Y" and "Company X, which has been struggling to compete with Company Z run by ex-Company X boss Ms A, shows off product Y which aims to grab every one of Company Z's customers".
Let's tease it out. Identifiable people? Sure, Ms A. And the customers of company Z. Tension between existing and future state? Sure - X and Z are at loggerheads, fighting for the market. Something changed about that tension? Yup - now we have product Y, which could change everything. (Or nothing. This one can run and run.)
Which one - "Company X launches product Y" or the battle-to-the-death version - would you rather read? Sure, it's down to journalists to fill in the context - and that's often the key part of our job; when we're doing our job properly (or even well) then we'll be able to spot those X-Y-Z-A links and make the connections, and fascinate the readers with it. But on its face, it's just a boring announcement; what turns it into a *story* is all those extras - the human angle (for every story has at some point to involve humans, even if, as with the Mars Curiosity lander, it's just our sense of wonder and accomplishment), the conflict, the change. To be a *story*, it *must* have those ingredients.
Apply this test liberally to anything you read - it works for books too - and you'll start to perceive the difference between an "announcement" and a "story". You can almost make it into a game. (Though please, not an app.) Apple launches an iPhone? It's an announcement *and* a story. It changes the dynamics of the mobile phone market, creates challenges for rivals. No-name company announces "iPad killer"? Announcement. Never heard of them, incredibly unlikely to make a difference (but keep a watching brief). Marissa Mayer leaves Google for Yahoo? I hope by now you can figure this out yourself.
Which is why I sigh inwardly so often when PR folk call me up saying they have a *story*, for I know that almost inevitably they don't. Believe me, I've been writing *stories* for longer than I care to think about, and I recognise them - or their elements - reflexively. If you're going to call me, or any journalist really, and can't assemble those pieces before you start dialling, think again about what you're going to say. A story? Really? Is it? Certain? Sure? Absolutely?
Yeah, I know I have a reputation for chewing people up when they call with PR pitches. Perhaps it's a faint frustration that after all these years, nobody thought it worthwhile sharing the difference between an "announcement" (ignore) and a "story" (picks up pen, opens notebook).
I'm looking forward to hearing from you all from now on because I'm never going to get a thoughtless email, follow-up call, or announcement dressed as a story ever again. Things are looking up.
Charles Arthur wrote this in a personal capacity.