This guide is free. Feel free to share it with colleagues and friends. See @HamishMThompson on Twitter for regular updates.
INTRODUCTION: ABANDON OLD ROPE YE WHO ENTER HERE
This guide features the contributions of several hundred journalists, primarily from the UK.
WARNING: there are 15,000 words of advice below.
Periodically we write out to editors, correspondents, news desks and bloggers inviting them to submit their worst examples of PR practice. We also capture tweets from journalists that sum up their frustrations like little haikus.
Responses in this guide come from senior journalists at the BBC, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Sun, The Scotsman, The Financial Times, The Daily Mail, Sky News and many more. We’re grateful for all the contributions.
It’s a useful exercise for us as a PR agency – and it is evidently cathartic for the hundreds of journalists that have taken the time to write back to us. We know from the feedback that we receive that it is widely read by PR professionals and is used as a training guide by some of the world’s largest consultancies.
We think that many of practices criticized below (sell-in calls, poorly targeted press releases, shoddy grammar and spelling, etc) should simply be stopped, with the time saved invested in thinking harder about the content of the email pitches and press releases that are sent to Britain’s hard-working hacks.
We update this page quarterly as an on-going record of the contributions we receive. We add new sections where patterns of annoying behaviour emerge. Social media, for instance, is giving rise to a whole series of bugbears, including, for example, the ‘suggested tweet’, usually a condensed version of a press release that some wet behind the ears PRs are bravely suggesting that journalists tweet. Here’s how that one ends:
There’s a lot to digest but we think it is well worth a read if you are serious about PR (traditional and digital) and media relations.
We’ve kept our editorial interventions to a minimum, occasionally removing a name to protect the not-so innocent. There is repetition, but repetition is instructive.
Above all, we hope that this report debunks myths, adds useful context and acts as a warning.
If you’re new to PR or an experienced practitioner we hope you’ll find something useful here. Please do feel free to share it with colleagues via Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn using the buttons above. If you’re a journalist, do send your examples to email@example.com or tweet him @HamishMThompson.
Finally, if you’re in PR and you fancy checking that your press release is free of buzzwords, do try our free online Buzzsaw app, which will automatically strip out buzzwords submitted to us by journalists. You’ll find that at prbuzzsaw.com
We hope you enjoy the report.
BACKDROP: WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT TODAY’S JOURNALISTS
Editors, correspondents and bloggers are shorter of time than they have ever been. One journalist tells us that he hangs up immediately if the person on the other end says “Have I been put through to the consumer desk?” “It isn’t a desk, it’s just ME,” he snarls.
The days of predictable deadlines are long gone and most correspondents are writing stories for websites as well as for print. News breaks all the time.
Patience is not a natural journalistic trait. Most are under intense pressure and have little time for waffle and pleasantries, especially ones with even the faintest whiff of insincerity.
Journalists have an acute sense of smell. They can sniff half-truths, dodgy figures and window-dressing.
According to our research, national correspondents have an average of more than 300 emails waiting in their inboxes when they arrive at the office.
MAJOR TREND: US terminology and the cloying “hipsterisation” of the PR industry
Many of the journalists that we contacted moaned about the way that PR people talk to them. They pointed in particular to the over-use of words like “awesome” and “super-excited”. This sort of hyperbole, they felt, was, (as one correspondent put it) “well, a bit juvenile”, and didn’t really match up to their expectations of professional communicators.
“One of the problems”, one correspondent said, “is that there’s this perception that PR and wacky ideas are a YOUNG thing. Most of the journalists that I know are older than their years and we get mightily hacked off if we’re called about something frivolous and talked to as if we’re children. The same applies to writing. If you write to us in a mannered and infantile way, you’ll just get ignored. Most of the PR people that I admire are 40+ and behave it. They treat me like an adult and I treat them the same way.”
A special honourable mention went to PRs that preface all verbal responses with “So”. “I don’t know where this comes from,” fumed one technology correspondent. “I suspect San Francisco via Shoreditch, but it’s worse than nails on a blackboard.”
Several of the journalists that we contacted said that they felt that these imported and hyperbolic terms were most often used by PRs representing next-generation technology companies, but other journalists with a wider consumer brief had also spotted the emergence of this sort of language, implying that it is leaking into other parts of the PR industry.
One correspondent said: “I’m all for a pleasant chat, but there are probably two things in the average life that deserve being referred to as ‘awesome’ or ‘super-exciting’. Cauliflowers and biscuits aren’t amongst them.”
In parallel, many referenced the foothold that American terms seem to have secured in the PR lexicon. A correspondent at the Guardian emailed us to shame the PRs that say ‘circle back’ or ‘reach out.’ There is at least one sighting in the wild of the use of outreach as a verb, as in “I outreached.”
In a similar vein a television correspondent sent us this tongue in cheek note: “Thanks for reaching out to me on this one, and I look forward to circling back to you in the near future. Though I have to warn you that, as of this moment in time, we have poor visibility going forward. Here’s to a new global paradigm in 2013!”
SINCE WHEN AM I THE DOLL REPORTER?
“The worst example in a long while came from Mattel’s PR people who contacted me for some odd reason to promote their latest Barbie product. “Barbie,” gushed the contact, “is reaching out to you because she is going on the road to look for a new place to live and coming to your area.’’ HUH? A doll is reaching out to me? Since when am I the doll reporter? Why was she wasting my time? And did she know our geography? The cities Barbie was considering had high crime rates and were not posh. So what was next? Barbie gets an Uzi? Barbie joins the ‘hood? Barbie goes to Neighborhood Watch?”
I hate pitches that:
1. Begin Dear Editor/Producer. Says you’re plastering the universe with this pitch and there’s nothing of special interest to me or my organization.
2. Don’t research ahead of time what I cover (Rising obesity rates for household pets? No. 45% of all American men have moustaches? No again.) I cover race and ethnicity and all the things affected by it. Fat doggies and hairy upper-lipped gentlemen aren’t part of the package.
3. Make completely specious links to my beat, especially when bolstered by bogus experts. (“15% Native American families love Gooey Crunch Breakfast Cereal with Marshmallow Stars! Let us make an appointment for you to speak with Dr. Notta Nutritionist about the energizing effects of heavily sugared cereal…”)
4. Pitch everyone in your newsroom at the same time. We’re kinda on to that, and the reaction tends to be “oh, you got one of those, too?” followed by the thunk of the mass pitch into the waste basket.
By far the biggest annoyance is PRs ringing to ask if their invariably dull story has made it into the paper. If by some miracle I actually happen to know the story made it to print they demand a PDF copy.
Sure, I’ll take time from my jaw-droppingly busy day to hunt for the page (possibly having to endure the wrath of production guys in the process) before exporting it as a PDF and emailing it to you. Get your own newspaper – we have an online edition – it’s not hard. And don’t even think about calling to ‘check if I got your email’, I did and if I was interested I would have called you. Now kindly stop wasting my time.
Sending announcements in .pdf format!
We are always getting calls from PRs who say they’ve ‘got a great local story’ for us. When we ask if it relates to Stockport they say ‘oh sorry, I’m not sure, I’m not familiar with the area’… or claim it is Stockport when it in fact turns out to be Salford, and then are surprised to hear they are two different places (perhaps a map might help?!). I also get told a lot ‘well it’s not happening in Stockport but people in Stockport might be affected’. Well, yes, but you could say that about pretty much any news, ever, and if we covered those stories it would make having a local newspaper somewhat pointless. Similarly with e-mails, if I get an e-mail with the subject line ‘great local story for you’ that tells me the PR doesn’t actually know which area we cover and is just hedging their bets. If it’s a Stockport story, put that in the subject line!
A few pet hates:
The main one is simply not understanding the site they’re sending the press release to. Does ITV News look like a site that wants to run a story on new clothing ranges?
Trying to sell flawed research. A survey of 100 people done inside your store is not sound, and neither are the claims made off the back of it.
Not including photos with releases.
Targeting the wrong parts of the organisation.
Emails with comments on events from “experts” I’ve never heard of in fields I’ve never heard of.
Follow up emails to check I got the first email in the first place. If I ignored it there’s a reason why.
Overt friendliness from people I’ve never met. Signing off with awful phrases. I got one recently that said “love and kittens” – NOOOOOO!
“Don’t tell me how to do my job. Don’t threaten my by saying how much the chief executive is a pal of the editor’s/owners (he isn’t, even if he thinks he is. Also, fuck off.) Don’t be over familiar. Don’t ask me how my family are. Don’t assume I can remember who you are (there are thousands and thousands of you). Don’t think I haven’t heard this (whatever it is) 3,000 times before. Don’t try to get me together with the chief executive on the basis that we both like football/fencing/whatever. He doesn’t like it. He looks like an idiot when he tries to. It is embarrassing. Don’t ask me for my phone number or email. It is in the paper every day. If you want to pitch a story to The Sun, it might be helpful to read The Sun.”
My main gripe is PR people telling you that you don’t know what a story is. We ran a series of pieces recently about wages in the public sector. We knew it would be controversial and it ended up with a visit from a director of communications in the editor’s office. After much complaining I asked what exactly he was unhappy about. He said: “It’s not a story. People aren’t interested in this. Why is this on the front page?” NEVER EVER tell an editor he doesn’t know what his readers want to read – even if that’s what you believe.
A Scottish journalist writes:
1. There is nothing worse than emails or letters coming in addressed to my predecessor or in fact most recently two predecessors ago! If you cannot find out who it is you are trying to pitch to, you shouldn’t be in the job!
2. I cannot stand surveys in which they come to the same findings but all they do is change the city name so it sounds ‘local’. Discovered this recently when I was sent a survey for Aberdeen, instead of Glasgow. When I pointed out to the PR girl in London that as a Glasgow station we wouldn’t be interested in Aberdeen figures, she promptly sent the same email with the just the area changed to Glasgow.
3. Why can’t PR officers down south understand the changes caused by devolution? Not so long ago we received a call from a PR firm down south offering us an expert to talk about abortion statistics from the Department of Health for England and Wales!
My pet peeves include: “I sent you a press release yesterday and I’m just calling to see if you got it.” Did you get an automatic reply saying we’d received your email? “Yes.” “I sent you a press release yesterday and I’m just calling to see if you need any more information.” Did you get the automatic reply saying we’d received your email and if we needed any more information we’d contact you? “Yes.” “I sent you a press release on Monday.” Definitely Monday? “Yes…no…maybe Tuesday…or it could have been Friday.” OK, wait a sec while I put the front page on hold to trawl through the 3,000 emails we’ve received since then so that when I find it I can tell you we don’t cover the West Midlands. “You’re a weekly, aren’t you?” No. “Do you cover stories in a neighbouring county?” No. “But this story’s really interesting.” Still no. “But people on your patch will want to hear about it.” Still no. I’m sure it’s an area you’ve covered but spamming e-mails from PR companies are very annoying.
My worst offender is a PR Company called [redacted] – they send me stuff mainly about stage shows – I am the editor of an international discussion programme and though my tastes are broad, I’m not sure knowing that former Apprentice star Charles Sidebottom is to make his stage debut in Crazy For You is really relevant. I tried automatically sending their stuff in to a spam file- but they send it through with different names on, eg, [redacted] (I’m not making this up) so I tried their “unsubscribe” service and amazingly, the e-mails kept coming. I wrote and asked them to take me off. Still nothing. Then I wrote back to them demanding free tickets for whatever they were promoting – THEN they stopped.
As referenced in your guide, I am astonished at the frequency with which I am offered research findings or news about a claimed “scientific breakthrough”, only to discover that the scientist or academic or researcher pivotal to the story is, in fact, unavailable on the day in question.
For my print colleagues, the provision of a well-selected quotation may suffice, but for TV or radio it is never adequate. This can be deeply, deeply frustrating. Sometimes the PRO involved is fully aware of the fact but fails to disclose it in initial conversations, thus wasting even more of my time.
And worse, often they seem put out at my apparent reluctance to cover the piece without either shots of the device involved nor a soundbite from the appropriate expert. Aaaargh. This happens several times a week. For broadcasters, this is such a deeply-rooted failure to understand the medium that it almost inevitably leads to on-going distrust of the individual or organisation involved. To my mind this is not just a failure of approach, a minor matter of language or tone, it is a fundamental failure to grasp even the basics of broadcast news and its requirements.
Ten years ago there may have been an excuse.: PR was fairly new; the majority of outlets were print; audio-visual could have been said to be a specialty. But not now, not since YouTube and not since newspapers themselves began to provide AV content online. Buy a book, google it, but don’t by turn be stupid and then aggressively defensive.
My other points are along the same lines. Do not choose, or insist upon, a filming or interview location: In front of windows. This is a technical nightmare and will make your interviewee look dark and shady. If you must, then hire or purchase the appropriate strength of lighting. And understand this will have to be powerful. The sun is a considerable source to have to balance. Or, as a last resort, at least inform the broadcasters you have invited of your intentions. In a cupboard-sized space or corner. Space behind the interviewee will improve the perspective of the shot, which will make it look nicer, which will make people more comfortable watching and listening to what is actually being said. This applies to backing boards filled with sponsor logos IMO. Do you want viewers to be reading or to be listening? Also a certain amount of distance is required between camera and subject. Hard surfaces reflect sound. Reflected sound diffuses quality. Poor quality audio can distract the listener from the message you and your company have spent considerable effort trying to get across. I guarantee at least half the people listening will be trying to work out where the interview took place rather than listening to its contents. Provide a soft-furnished, and carpeted space away from the throng of the event for radio interviews. Even better: provide two. Never, ever suggest going outside to conduct interviews if “outside” means next to a road. It demonstrates ignorance. If it is a story about a “thing”. then a still photograph of the thing will not suffice for TV. We need to film the “thing”, almost certainly in action. Inanimate “things” are not dissimilar to photographs of “things”. TV is about moving pictures. I’ll say it again because many people don’t seem to get it: TV is about MOVING PICTURES. Not for nothing do film directors shout: “Action!”. This applies to people. If the story is about a football team’s achievements, make sure they are in their strips, have a ball, or three, and the space in which to play football. If not, understand that broadcasters will think you are either: unbelievably stupid, or wilfully interested in your own career at the expense of our time and effort. If in doubt, call your contact at the local BBC office. If they have agreed to come to your event, then they will probably have a minute or two to advise on such matters. These are the bugbears which leapt to mind. I hope this helps. For the record, I am no longer a reporter for the BBC. I was a senior broadcast journalist for them, and have also been a member of staff for Sky News and Reuters TV.
This may already be on your list, which I’ve only skim read, but failure to understand the publication or journalist to which information is being submitted is unforgiveable – eg. offering something related to TV listings when we don’t run them or suggesting that a plug for a drinks brand would look good on our ‘Coffee House’ blog (which is about Westminster politics). It’s so suggestive of poor research and a cack-handed attitude to their clients. It makes me suspect that whatever they’re representing is worthless, so I always take note of the agencies that do this.
Mergers or alliance with quotes from one “We are delighted” and from the second party, “We are pleased…” Really, how much work does it take to get them to say something meaningful about the value of this alliance in real terms, and please leave out “synergy.”
In America “Such as” seems to be the new way of beginning a sentence, even when it makes no sense. In banking, “omni channel” refers to offering the same info in a branch, ATM, online or on a mobile but today I saw Esri, the mapping company, use it as a noun: “the omni channel.” I fear it is just the first time, not the last. When I get pitches well outside my coverage area I label them as junk. No second chances. Screw your clients, follow journalism style.
In the US, titles are lower case after the name. PRs almost always make them upper case, which I suspect clients think makes them look more important. Annoying to have to go through and change it. And expect titles that go to 7 or 10 words to get truncated. I just want the title to explain what the person does, not fit a slot into a10-page org chart.
Clichés: In tech journalism “seamless” is tossed in often and randomly. Sure, all system integration results are seamless, then why do they break down so often or deliver different versions of the truth to different users…Solution, of course. World class, best in class, leading — common across industries but annoying all the time. Intelligent quotes are useful. I cover a lot of technical stuff and over a wide range of topics, so solid background and intelligent quotes are helpful. I sometimes review quotes and always invite people to let me know of any problems when stories are published online — I can change than in a few minutes. I think tech PR people are usually pretty smart and well-informed, although I have my doubts when called by a junior PR pushing a tech story who doesn’t know what an operating system is.
LOATHSOME BEHAVIOUR (their words, not ours)
Avoid these pitfalls and you stand a much better chance of capturing the imagination of journalists.
Making up words when there are others that will do the trick was a major bugbear. The business editor of a leading Scottish paper offered the following: “I dislike annoying phrases like ‘going forward’ (meaning in the future) and “learnings” for lessons.”
A correspondent at The Independent said: “Most of the issues for me are about behaviour. I can’t stand it when I’m phoned and the PR says: “Some of the findings are quite surprising, for instance… [followed by a long list]” or “I’m just checking you received that email.” Similarly annoying is failing to disclose the clients and their interest, which (in my mind) immediately downgrades credibility.”
A senior correspondent at The Sun gave us these pet peeves: “I hate it when PRs offer me ’Collateral’ – when PRs just mean materials for publication! It’s not a war operation, it’s a story in a newspaper.”
The correspondent added: “’Demi / Semi Exclusive’ – This tends to be the preserve of a few big agencies but it is always met with howls of laughter and derision in newsrooms. An exclusive means it is in ONE publication. Offering it to two or more is not in any way exclusive.”
Finally, the correspondent added: “And the dreaded: “the client wants it to appear like this?” – Oh really? Then book an advert…”
A correspondent at the Daily Telegraph gave three examples of his pet hates: “(1) “Scoop” (they never are), (2) ANY pun of any description, (3) Phone calls that start “Hi is that xxxx? How are you? I am just giving you a quick call to see if you have a minute to listen to a story idea that I have that you might find of interest…”. That is 20 seconds that I will never get back.”
He emailed us again minutes later: “PS – And no-one has used the word “scoop” since Evelyn Waugh.”
Another correspondent on a Scottish paper groaned: “I loathe it when a business is described as “providing solutions”. We see this time and again and tells us nothing.”
A features editor at a national paper sent us a copy of his blacklist (pinned beside his monitor) which includes:
(1) “reaching out”
(2) “attached is an article which would be good to feature in your…”
(3) “Pleased to announce an exciting new client” [this is not news]
(4) “Hi, I hope you are well”
(5) “Delivery footprint”
(6) Any footprint – unless it is a yeti’s
A senior correspondent at another national broadsheet told us: “What drives me NUTS is when a PR rings or e-mails to say he or she is “selling in” a story. That is a red rag to a bull.”
“The other thing that irritates me is the expression, giving a ‘heads up’ on something… why not ‘a bit of notice’?”
“I’ve also been finding increasingly that a lot of younger PRs do not actually understand what an embargo is, never mind how it works. That has led to some major misunderstandings about the timings of stories which could have been avoided. And I can never understand why people time an embargo with a ‘news conference’ or event. If you have the story under embargo then you are highly unlikely to go to the event, no matter what it is. In fact an embargoed story – if planned properly – can usually work well as we have the time to package it up and pitch it to our newsdesks, etc.”
“I also often get e-mails from people saying: Dear Val (which is not my name), good to talk just now (when we haven’t)… thought this would work well as a feature for The Mail on Sunday (which is not the title I write for). Or whoever… basic rule is to get the name and publication right.”
WORDS IN PRESS RELEASES: TOP TWENTY HATES (and our shot at a definition in brackets)
Avoid these terms and these practices and (if your story is sufficiently well crafted) you stand a substantially better chance of getting your story in print, on air or online.
- Brits / Hard-working Brits / Hard-up Brits (an attempt to be ‘accessible’)
- Dynamic (likely not to be)
- Paradigm (a ‘silk purse’ word)
- Elite (i.e. the best thing in Scunthorpe on a Thursday at 3pm)
- Hotly anticipated (i.e. never heard of it)
- End-user (‘customer’)
- Influencer (probably not)
- Evangelist (a tendency to tweet with loads of hashtags)
- Deliverables (‘tasks’)
- Icon/iconic (‘use before 01.01.01 or never’)
- Rocketed (‘made modest progress’)
- “An astonishing x per cent” (it rarely is astonishing)
- Marquee event/marquee client (probably ‘very local’)
- Going forward (‘in the future’)
- Ongoing (‘a bit behind schedule’)
- Optimised (‘changed by consultants then changed back’)
- Horizontal, vertical, etc (two words in lieu of a strategy)
- Phygital (easy to press or swipe we guess)
- SoLoMo (no idea)
- Well-positioned (‘hopeful but a bit scared’)
MORE DISHONOURABLE MENTIONS
“Putting “does this work for you?” in the subject line, which makes me shout “no” and hit delete without reading it.”
“Starting an email with “FirstName” is definitely on the list.” (Editor’s note: mea culpa once on this one – never again)
“Happy Friday” and “Lock-in some coverage”.
“Iconic” – when applies to everything from Kate Middleton’s hair to Colleen Rooney’s platforms. “Please can we allow this word the respect and privacy it deserves at this special time so that it can recover its true meaning?”
“”What are you working on at the moment?” – about 500 stories and we don’t have time to elaborate or we won’t get them finished. If we need you, we’ll call.”
“Cold calls – cold emails will suffice.”
“Misspellings and atrocious grammar – a complete turn-off. How can we begin to take your analysis and pronouncements seriously if you don’t even have the diligence to check the difference between it’s and its?”
“”We’d like to place this on your pages” – what are we: classified ads?”
“Please don’t “reach out to us” – we’re perfectly happy with a conversation or the written word.”
“One correspondent added: “Two stand out above all others… the use of the word “issues” as a sanitised alternative to “problem” or “disaster”. In modern PR speak Argentina has “issues” with the Falklands, the economy is suffering low growth “issues” and Chelsea had sub optimal performance “issues” against QPR last night. The other is the business speak use of “around.” Put the two together as in “issues around x” is my particular bête noir.”
HOW NOT TO USE TWITTER
“Getting approached by some numbskull PR on Twitter, usually with a rubbish invitation to a Z list event that has nothing to do with what I write about.”
“PRs asking me to follow them on Twitter so that they can DM me. Show me the PR who can say something meaningful in 140 characters and I’ll eat my shorts.”
“Having a journalist follow you on Twitter seems to be the new “I have great contacts”.”
“’He’s in a meeting'; ‘Not to my knowledge'; ‘it’s on our website'; ‘it’s only speculation'; and, on deadline, ‘how are you today?…oh, are you coming along to our press conference on Wednesday week?’
People called Pippa French-Windows.”
“PR people who make no effort whatsoever to research the paper they’re calling.
It annoys me enough when we get several calls a week pitching Leeds stories (off our patch) but when people call pitching stories for a couple of hundred miles away, it’s ridiculous.
One PR a few weeks ago was clearly going alphabetically through a list and had lost his place. “Is that the Wimbledon paper?” – No. “Sorry, Wolverhampton?” No. “Wycombe??” NO!
Faux-friendliness on phone calls. Just get to the point; skip the “and how are you today” chat. Someone last week asked me on a busy Monday what I’d done with my weekend, and got short thrift!
Chasing up repeatedly on emails. If a story’s good, it will be used. We delete or redirect hundreds of emails a day that are irrelevant or for other departments. We can’t reply to them all. I can understand chasing up an email if you’ve been told it will be used or if you know it’s a great story. But take the hint; don’t nag!
Odious words/phrases include solutions, multi-agency partnerships, awesome, amazing.
“Hit and run” press releases – when PR people email a release, then when you try to call back immediately they’ve left for the day.
“Corporate gobbledygook is always a turn-off.”
“Try the URL of a website out for yourself before including it in a press release – I’ve lost count of the number that have been mis-typed or are simply not yet active by the time the release goes out.
If you, the PR, don’t know what some piece of jargon, acronym or technical detail means how the hell do you expect the journalist to know. Again, I have lost count of the number of times I have queried something to be told “I wondered what that meant, too…”
Call a spade a spade. Many years ago, when I was a trainee, I came across the phrase “public utility facility” in a council press release. After a lengthy and largely circular conversation, I said to the individual at the Council end of the ‘phone “So, it’s a rubbish dump,” to be told: “Well, we don’t call them that…””
LET’S NOT BE ASSUMPTIVE
“‘We’d like to work with you on this’. ‘Work with me’? I think not. You’re on the other side of the fence, mate. Armed neutrality is the best you’re going to get.
It infuriates our picture-desk when people ask if they can “book” a photographer. Request or invite, yes. Book, no.
‘Hi, how are you today?’ ‘You really want to know?…….No. You really don’t. Honestly. You really, really don’t.”
PRs putting stuff out under an embargo – such as ‘Not before 00.01 HRS Monday’ – and then breaking their own embargo by giving someone the nod to run early (or even worse giving it to a Sunday). Excuse me, but this is a two way agreement. Not one way.
Yours going forward in a best-of-breed blue chip ongoing synergistic blue sky thinking joined up manner,”
“My pet hate is when you you get a fab press release on a great story – you ring the PR person up and they say NO-ONE is available on the day they put the release out to talk about their story. WHY bother putting it out in the first place? If you want publicity then you have to make sure you have people available to talk.
Press offices and agencies that don’t have out of hours numbers: in the age of 24 hour news this is essential. If your agency can’t be contacted out of hours you’re wasting your money.”
Have you heard of newspapers?
“I am irritated by PRs who don’t read the paper and then ring me to ask if a totally inappropriate story is of interest.
Me and virtually all my colleagues are driven mad by follow up calls to ask “do you need anything else?” and “is it of interest?”
If I need anything else I will call you, and I don’t know if it will make the paper until I pick up a copy the next morning – please stop ringing to chase up releases.
PRs who ring to ask if a story has gone in the paper (without buying a copy and looking themselves) risk being blacklisted – this is not an exaggeration.
Quotes. When have you ever seen a quote in a newspaper news story along the lines of:
“Our product is the market leader and has been loved by Britons for generations.”
“This survey [on a vaguely related subject] shows our product can improve the lives of millions of Britons.”
“I am pleased our product will continue …etc, etc, etc”
I am prepared to look at research/ surveys that promote a product but when the release and the quote are blatant puff, it will not make it.
Quotes should support the survey, not push the product.
Don’t ring to ask if you can send over a press release, it does nothing but irritate, especially if preceded by “How are you today?”.
Don’t ring a national newspaper after 4pm with a story idea – this is deadline and unless it is sensational breaking news it can wait.
PRs are getting very “salesy” and pushy. The rule of thumb is if it is of interest and any good, it will get in the paper. If it isn’t it wont, and no amount of pushing is going to change that. All this “selling in” nonsense is just that. You’re wasting your time and money. Spend it on the stuff that matters – the story / idea.”
“PRs who don’t include a contact phone number!”
“One pet peeve I have is PR staff phoning without a clue of what the hell they’re talking about.
The amount of calls we get from agencies saying “basically, what it is yeah, is we’ve got …” is ridiculous.”
“My pet hates in the world of PR include anything that makes the initial cut-and paste more difficult.
They include press releases:
- Sent as an attachment. Takes-up my valuable time to open them… to find out if they are of any interest. Sometimes I am just to busy to bother. Send the press release in the body of the email.
- Peppered with graphics and other elements that do not easily cut-and-paste.
- Telling a story that screams-out for a picture, but does not include one.
- Logos that come as .jpg attachments and LOOK like they might be the vital missing picture, and waste our time opening them.
- Including bullet points… that do not cut and paste.
- “Editor’s Notes”. They send me reaching for the delete button. Means the PR is too LAZY to include vital information in the particular release, and wants me to do a skilful re-write to craft the key, underlying information into the story. Grrrrrrr!
- Those that are written from the narrow perspective of the client,stating claims or opinions as facts.
- Include “surveys” that are clearly made-up or produce nothing new, providing information that anyone would have expected anyway. e.g. “52 per cent of women are more likely to confide in their female friends than their husbands”.”
- “For some unknown reason, our office phones have a digital stopwatch that activates at the start of every call, so when we get one of these tedious PR calls I can see precisely how much of my day they are tragically stealing!”
“My pet hates:
Surveys. I am almost certainly never going to write a feature off the back of a PR-commissioned survey, because readers are now just as cynical about them as everyone in the business (and have been for a long time).
“I’m just ringing to check you’ve seen our press release…” If I haven’t rung you back, it’s because it’s not one for us. You’re wasting your own time as much as mine.
Not understanding/bothering to check what I do. If you looked at my cuttings you’ll see I’m probably not going to come to the launch of your new tablet product, because I don’t write about tablets. Nor does it make sense to alert me to the fact that the boy band you represent is available for interview.
The converse of this: I will be very grateful indeed if you tip me off with a great story idea about an unusual or niche subject. I will be less grateful if you keep suggesting we revisit it again and again. We are not going to run the same feature twice.
Emails circulated to half the journalists in London that start: “Heyy!! How are you? Betcha can’t wait for the weekend!” You might as well just write “I am a deeply insincere person” in your email signature.
On the other hand – I am always keen to hear from PRs offering actual stories: engaging, original narratives which fit our editorial mission statement and will grab the interest of our readers. It’s surprising how few of these are sent my way.”
“Someone pitches an interview, I immediately accept. After several hours of silence, the rep says they can’t fit me in.
People who try to convince me to cover something by saying that they’ve already given my competition a head start. (“Here’s a piece from yesterday!”) Or passive aggressive stuff like, “Well I’m sure XX will be interested.”
Reps who do not trust me to read my email. There’s no need to send something more than once, or follow up with a phone call – I read it the first time, really.”
“Today I took a trip to my local sorting office and paid £1.69 of unpaid postage for the pleasure of reading a press release. That was annoying.
I’m sure that pausing to ask “how are you?” before beginning a conversation has been mentioned before. If it’s your friend or someone you know pretty well – fine. But otherwise it’s just timewasting and feels false.
I also have lots of emails that begin something like “we all know how annoying it is to…” or “this time of year everyone is…” They’re never universal truths and that tone, as the first thing you read, just stops me reading on.
Sending things as attachments… especially when they’re static PDFs where links aren’t links. It lessens their chances of being read by at least 50%.
Don’t get me started on the massively insulting way companies treat bloggers: I’m constantly asked if I’d like to publish, word for word, some PR puff that’s been written under the loose guise of a “sponsored post”. I am also often asked if people can give me gifts of their products in return for a mention. NO! These people need to understand that if they want advertorials, they need to pay for them. And let us make them interesting to read. And if they want editorial, treat us like journalists – which many of us have been for years.”
“By far and away the most annoying thing, especially in business journalism is “I’m just following up on a email.”
Being offered “head of marketing or sales” and an interview opportunity is so annoying. Often, it is London agencies who offer this up, without having bothered to ask whether I have a relationship with the client already. Nine times out of 10 I do and it will be the chief executive or managing director, not the person they’re punting around.
Overall, calling up and saying “I have a great story for you” is so annoying. We’ll be the judge of that thanks. Only those who I speak to every day and have proven time and again to come up with “great” stories have the right to say anything like that.
Finally, when it’s obvious they are reading from a script down the phone, I feel like I’m being encouraged to lodge a PPI compensation claim.”
A CITY EDITOR’S PERSPECTIVE
“My latest huge hate is when PRs send me something along the lines of: ‘Opportunity for you to interview the second sub-under vice chair of HR of Gubbins plc.’ This might be an ‘opportunity’ for the PR, or indeed for the company. It is most certainly NOT an opportunity for me – trying to present it as such fools no-one and is incredibly annoying. I have never yet encountered a single case where something billed as an ‘opportunity’ actually is one. Also, this is becoming more prevalent, so presumably someone is telling people to do it. STOP!”
“PRs: stop trying to present something as being to my benefit, when it is only to your own. Journalists are not entirely stupid, and you should not behave like shoddy timeshare salespeople.”
“In general, try to write in English. Why not read back what you are sending out to see if you could imagine a real person ever saying it out loud. To give one random example of a chief executive’s quote: “We are entering a new global paradigm in business whereby operatives are no longer satisfied with having a physical office in which all deals must take place. Enterprise is expanding beyond the four walls of the company headquarters and businesses therefore need tools that facilitate a much more mobile and fluid sales team. As we infiltrate new markets around the world, we expect to roll out our offering on a wider scale and enable businesses to benefit from our market leading product.””
“Grammar, spelling and punctuation are often appalling. We have a beautiful language, so please start using it properly.”
“Do not ring constantly just because you have sent me an email. I can read. If I want to follow it up, I can pick up a phone. In 20 years of journalism I cannot remember a single case of a PR phoning me about an email they have sent where this call has been anything other than a useless irritation. Stop doing it – the practice does nothing to advance your cause and indeed damages it.”
“Know your pay grade. If you are a junior PR, it is not your place to ring City Editors or other senior journalists – particularly since your call is invariably trivial and bothersome and never involves anything we would consider a decent story.”
“Why not try reading some newspapers? You might glean some idea of what makes a good story and what interests journalists. At the moment, many PRs seem to have little idea.”
BOOKS: IT HELPS TO HAVE READ THEM
Simon Hoggart writes:
“I write a weekly column in the Guardian and on its website. Sometimes I refer to new books. As a consequence I get a book sent to me most days. About one-in-20 might conceivably make an item. I am never going to write about:
- a new, ground-breaking survey of Balkan history, 1901-14
- the memoirs of someone who has not got the faintest idea of how to tell, or even spot, a good anecdote.
- anything which largely depends on pictures. We don’t have space, as a glance at the column would show.
- whimsical books of philosophy with titles like: Is Everything In The World Crap, Or Is It Just Me?
- the memoirs of an ex-MP who declines to say anything disloyal or disobliging about his old colleagues
- any collection of recipes
- An Eritrean boyhood: Sir Mahatma Khota looks back
You get the impression that the PR simply hasn’t read the book (and I know a lot of them haven’t.) If they had, they could tailor their pitch. E.g.: ‘On page 89, James tells an amazing story about Margaret Thatcher’. But they don’t. They imagine that you, like them, spend most of the day sitting about wondering whether it’s time to go to Pret and really welcome a 400-page read such as Sisyphus Unchained: What Really Happened in the Occupation of Palestine.”
A GREAT (HI)STORY
A PR person recently told me that the official opening of a bakers in the town – several weeks after it had actually opened – was a ‘great local news story’ . when I pointed out it had been open for some time and would have been a better story before it had opened, she argued with me and insisted it was a great story.
It made me wonder, if she thought if she kept saying it was a great news story, I would start to believe her.
MUSIC SOOTHES, ETC
Here are a few pet hates from the point of view of a music radio journalist….
PR people who try to pitch features (which we don’t do) for talk shows or news programmes (which we don’t have). It’s a schoolboy error not to understand who you’re calling, especially when it a brand as big and as well known (and as music centric) as Heart.
Emails which say “i thought your viewers or readers would be interested… ” Don’t send me generic, round-robin emails, if it can be targeted to radio or to my patch or station, do it. If it can’t be.. don’t both ringing me.
Made-up news and adverts masquerading as surveys – a bed company which says we all sleep better on a new mattress.. is NOT going to make it onto my news. And no, a celebrity interviewee still won’t change my mind.
RUB IT IN
One of the things that puts my back up is emails which start, “Dear Lauren, hope you’re enjoying this glorious sunshine.”
Chances are, if I’m reading your email, I’m not sitting outside soaking up the glorious sunshine – I’m sat at my desk in my hot, stuffy office, staring at my computer screen – and reminding me that I’m not soaking up the glorious sunshine is not going to put you in my good graces.
One from my colleague – it might seem obvious, but we are practically begging you to include basic information about the people in the press release! That’s age, title, street address, town.
If you just say someone is ‘from Pontefract’, you will likely get ignored. Pontefract is a big town with two separate newspapers covering it.
Not putting in a street address means we have to email back asking for it, then the PR has to contact the person, then they have to contact us again with the information.
This can take days – and that’s just to ascertain which newspaper should look into it.
On that same note, we are never going to run a story based on PR quotes. We always like to get our own. Just include the person’s contact details. It’s just easier for everyone involved.
Would also add under the ‘Badmin’ section those people who send me press releases as read-only PDFs – if it’s impossible to extract the material, it will never get used.
Punctuation: apostrophes are either stuffed in everywhere there is an s at the end of a word (plural’s for example) or they do not appear anywhere; I think people don’t know the rules any more – which is a cause of some despair.
And a tiny thing that I am sure will also resonate with all web editors – the propensity to put headlines ALL IN CAPS SO THEY SHOUT AT YOU. ( In case you aren’t aware of it, there is a lovely shortcut in Word which enables you to toggle between U/C, L/C and sentence case: Shift and F3. Has saved my sanity on many occasions!)
LET ME JUST DROP EVERYTHING AND DO YOUR JOB FOR YOU
PRs who write to me asking for a synopsis for a feature – shows a depressing lack of proactiveness.. Send me an idea, an angle, something to capture my imagination – let’s cut to the chase – I haven’t got time to reply to requests for information.
PRs who work for cool agencies – so cool, in fact, that they don’t leave a telephone number on their e-mails. Call me old skool but I like to talk to people when covering a story. This minimalist approach means I have to e-mail them and ask for their number – it’s a waste of time. Don’t they want to speak to anyone? Keep a signature on the end of all e-mails.
COPY APPROVAL? HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA…
As soon as a PR asks for copy approval (which they will never get), not only do they run the risk of that copy not appearing at all but they can guarantee the magazine will never respond to another pitch from them again.
I find it particularly annoying if a PR calls me up and proceeds to talk at me without the opportunity for me to stop them. I need a slimmed down email of the main story and what’s being offered to film in front of me as a reference, before we start a conversation to save time.
Also a bugbear is when they don’t introduce themselves (name or where they’re from).
HUMP DAY? WONDERFUL?
Phrases like “happy hump day” and “I hope you’re wonderful” are to be avoided.
THE CASE FOR CASE STUDIES
My main irritant is when a case study is offered on a story in a press release, and when you chase this up, the case study doesn’t exist.
Having said that, it’s amazing to work with PR people who really get how a news room works, and how little time we have on a day to day basis.
Case studies/spokespeople: if you have a story embargoed for a particular day – please make sure you have a case study and/or a spokesperson available for interview on that day. There are stories that we want to cover but for some reason the key people we need to speak to in order to cover the story aren’t available on the day.
Know who you’re pitching to – we have PR people calling up pitching us stories for the weekend when we have no weekend programmes. We also don’t have a breakfast programme. By taking 5 minutes to look on the website and doing a tiny bit of research they could work this out. We’re also 5 News – not 5live.
Calling weeks in advance for an event or story and wanting a decision straight away… then chasing it up every week. A week in advance is plenty of notice.
It’s very frustrating when a PR is clearly selling their brand but trying to make a story out of it (e.g. our beer is more carbon friendly than others, our super expensive tailored meal can help you lose weight), especially when calling the BBC. That is not a story, it’s advertising your brand.
Another thing, if we reply to your email and say we are possibly interested in a story, please don’t check in every few days to see how the story is progressing, many deadlines come up.
TRY READING THE PAPER
For what it’s worth, my advice to PR people is to read newspapers, understand how they write and adapt what they are saying accordingly.
For example, space is at somewhat of a premium in papers nowadays, there is no point in sending 800 word press releases.
The longest story in our paper is 350 words, and it needs to be something important to be given that length.
The announcement of a new line in toothbrushes does not justify an essay.
And also, try to make it readable. I instantly close press releases written in multiple fonts and with a completely non-news introduction.
I have never worked in PR but I think if I were to, I would count it to be a success when I can get my press release into the paper as untampered with as possible.
Much is said about journalists being overworked, the easier you can make it on them without the need to re-write reams of press releases the better chance you have of your information making it into the paper.
Therefore write what you want to say as it would appear in the paper, not as it sounds good to you.
IT’S NOT ROCKET SCIENCE
It is deeply annoying when PRs send a press release about a new scientific paper and don’t attach the paper – especially when they are based in a different time zone. Like all science correspondents I want to do my job well, and that means actually reading the paper I’m writing about. Why not send it on, and save us both the hassle of a follow up phone call? And, while we’re at it, if one of your professors has a very newsworthy paper out, why not check that he or she’ll be around that day? You could even let your researchers know that, if journalists do contact them, a reply along the lines of, “yes I’d love to talk, will next Tuesday work?” probably isn’t that helpful!
A TV PRODUCER WRITES
It’s infuriating when a PR person phones our news desk half an hour before we’re on air and wants to point out there’s an event next week we might be interested in. Also, every journalist can see through the scam which involves a PR trickster on the phone saying: “Hi, I spoke to one of your colleagues last week and they said you would be coming to film today so an you let me know what time the reporter’s arriving?”. Of course no such conversation took place. So please can PR people ditch cheap stunts?
Please, please put the news line in the first par of the press release. Don’t bury it in the 15th.
Spend some time in a newsroom in preparation for working in PR. Then you’ll understand the deadlines and the need for a concise, accurate message.
Don’t bother sending a commercial TV company a press release about how fabulous the food is at your client’s restaurant. Learn about compliance so you can target the message.
If you want decent TV coverage of an event, don’t plaster the walls of the venue with your client’s logo. Undue prominence is not allowed. Again, compliance rules have to be adhered to.
The royal baby references have got to stop! We had one yesterday from a PR who shoehorned in a royal baby reference to a release about portraits of terminally ill babies and their parents!
BUY AN ATLAS
The main problem I have is people pitching stories with no regional link- as a local newspaper without that link I can’t use it.
More annoying, however, are PRs calling up with stories in Essex but out of our patch- it shows they have just picked up the phone and not even double checked if we cover say Colchester or Epping (two places we don’t!)
Also not a fan of constant follow ups particularly on deadline/press day. If a PR has called once or emailed- I will get back to them! However calling multiple times along with lots of emails can get slightly annoying and clog up my already full voicemail/inbox!
A few pet peeves from my almost 20 years in local/regional radio:
PRs not understanding that radio works to hourly deadlines – so don’t ring us at 3 minutes to the hour and expect a lengthy conversation.
Also for similar reasons, don’t try and set up interviews on the hour – we’ll be busy then.
PRs not understanding why radio, an immediate medium, is not interested in a story that happened some days/weeks ago…!
Sending photos to radio stations (slightly less incongruous in these multi-media days, but, still…..)
Sending “quotes” to radio stations, would you like us to read them out in a comedy accent?
Not having interviewees available or the PR not being in the office to help you when they’ve sent out a release.
Not briefing interviewees that they’ve been put forward as a spokesperson.
Not briefing interviewees about what sort of thing we might want to ask and ensuring they’re available in person or in quality, or at the very least on a decent landline – what they sound like is THE most important thing for us!
Often they’re expecting to be part of a long discussion programme, not just a 5 minute conversation where they’ll be clipped-up for bulletins. So being able to get their message across in sound-bites would be a great discipline to get across to the client by the PR.
ZEN AND THE ART OF PR
1. Get to the point in the first paragraph
2. Give us facts not waffle
3. Do not send 15 variations of the same story with the only variation being one line.
4. Do not send us one line emails saying ‘see attachment’ – we don’t open them
5. Do not send us emails saying what a great event it was yesterday – tell us the day before.
6. Do be targeted in who you send emails too, irrelevant cascades get the sender blocked quickly.
A MUSIC JOURNALIST WRITES:
- don’t talk about the weather at the start of every email
- don’t read a press release for 3 minutes word for word
- try to get the name of the publication correct
- don’t tap up my writers then suggest they are massive fans when they’re not
- don’t lie about or pretend to move release dates in concern with albums
- don’t facebook or tweet me about work
- don’t tell me all the other places that are covering it at the same time
- don’t under estimate the power of knowing the magazine’s sections
- don’t phone every single week unless you’re truly hilarious
- don’t pitch things unless you’re sure they fit
- don’t lie on reports to clients about activity that never was discussed
- don’t get pissed off when i don’t reply to emails. i get 500 a day and its not a lie
- don’t try and bribe me with money or opportunities
- don’t send 5 copies of a single to me in 5 weeks.
I’m sure it’s an area you’ve covered but spamming e-mails from PR companies are very annoying. My worst offender is a PR Company called [redacted] – they send me stuff mainly about stage shows – I am the editor of an international discussion programme and though my tastes are broad, I’m not sure knowing that former Apprentice star Charles Sidebottom is to make his stage debut in Crazy For You is really relevant. I tried automatically sending their stuff in to a spam file- but they send it through with different names on (eg Stephen Pidcock (I’m not making this up) so I tried their “unsubscribe” service and amazingly, the e-mails kept coming. I wrote and asked them to take me off. Still nothing. Then I wrote back to them demanding free tickets for whatever they were promoting – THEN they stopped.
My main gripe is PR people telling you that you don’t know what a story is.
We ran a series of pieces recently about wages in the public sector.
We knew it would be controversial and it ended up with a visit from a director of communications in the editor’s office.
After much complaining I asked what exactly he was unhappy about.
He said: “It’s not a story. People aren’t interested in this. Why is this on the front page?”
NEVER EVER tell an editor he doesn’t know what his readers want to read – even if that’s what you believe.
HOW NOT TO ANNOY A TABLOID JOURNALIST IN EIGHT EASY STEPS
1) don’t tell me how to do my job.
2) don’t threaten my by saying how much the chief executive is a pal of the editor’s/owners (he isn’t, even if he thinks he is. Also, fuck off.)
3) don’t be over familiar.
4) don’t ask me how my family are.
5) don’t assume I can remember who you are (there are thousands and thousands of you)
6) don’t think I haven’t heard this (whatever it is) 3000 times before
7) don’t try to get me together with the chief executive on the basis that we both like football/fencing/whatever. He doesn’t like it. He looks like an idiot when he tries to. It is embarrassing.
8) don’t ask me for my phone number or email. It is in the paper every day.
If you want to pitch a story to The Sun, it might be helpful to read The Sun.
BACK TO BASICS
“I’ve been on news desk for the last ten days and in that time, I’ve probably sifted through the best part of 2500 emails and dealt with a lot of PR and marketing calls.
Don’t over-write your press release. If you can craft a tight 200 word press release which has all the necessary information in and a good quote, it stands a really good chance of getting in. Most page lead news articles in our newspaper are about 350 words long. I got a press release this week which was 1750 words long – that’s me cutting 1350 words from your story.
Always summarise your story in a SINGLE paragraph at the top of your email and include your phone number. Too many press releases are over-written. They often bury their strongest news line in the middle. You may be announcing that Elvis has returned but if you don’t say this until paragraph 19, it’s going to be missed. No matter how important your story is, or how great you think you can write, most news desks probably won’t read past par 3-4. You are competing for their attention and they have the attention span of a gnat. Distractions are everywhere! You have about 30 seconds to score – don’t waste it.
Tell your press release in a single side of A4 if possible. Who, what, why, when, where and how is all you need. Don’t go for a ‘drop intro’ – facts are fine. Also don’t bother prettifying your press releases with templates and company branding and notes to editors that run eight pages. These are marketing materials – learn the difference. Your funders might care about them but newspapers do not. If your release is ‘too decorated’ it will create difficulties transferring it to a news diary or web page. Many newspapers nationwide still have very primitive computer set-ups.
If your news is an event taking place, always give a week to 10 days notice ideally and then follow up. Always put the date, time, venue and contact number for the event at the top of your email. Also tell us whether you can provide photographs to us after the event if we can’t attend. If we can’t get there, don’t take it personally. Every newspaper would love to send dozens of staff to every event but the reality these days is that none of them have this. If you understand this fundamental truth about newspapers early, your life will be much happier.
If you do attach photographs check their file size please. We had a 27MB email sent in this week. It sat in junk mail for the morning, slowed up the entire system then IT had to quarantine it, then tazer it. I still don’t know what the pictures were. If you don’t care what size your photographs are, why should anyone care what they show?
WHAT’S IN A NAME, AGE, ETC? – A CAUTIONARY TALE
If people feature in your press release ideally say where they are from. Not Cumbria, Lancashire, etc – specify the town. Ideally say what age they are as well. I always ask for people’s ages after having it drummed into me by a news editor. He once wrote a court story about a “FRED BLOGS OF MARKET STREET” (not his real name) and did not include his age, even though it was on the court sheet. It so happened there was a second Fred Bloggs who also lived on Market Street who hadn’t pleaded guilty to exposing himself to a passing lady vicar. The Fred Blogs in court was 19-years-old but the innocent Fred Blogs was 87 and the church organist. If my friend had just bothered to include the defendant’s age, he would have avoided a hugely embarrassing apology and legal pay out. Ages are important in news. A 20-year-old man doing 100 parachutes jumps is a story, but how much more bigger is it if he’s 100!
HYPE OR TRIPE?
Don’t ring up and over-sell because we’ll be immediately suspicious. ”HEY GUYS! HOW ARE WE ALL FEELING IN THE TEAM TODAY????? GOOD! GOOD!!! JUST DROPPING YOU A LINE TO SAY WE’VE GOT THIS REALLY GREAT STORY THAT WE JUST CAN’T WAIT TO SHARE WITH YOU IF YOU HAVE FIVE MINUTES??? ARE YOU ONBOARD???!!!” This hyper brand of American positivity never works for me. Especially when the PR has a Chorley accent. But at the same time, don’t undersell it either. This week we got a press release which had no subject line, no introduction, nothing in the body of the email and was just an attachment. It almost looked like spam, but I recognised the name.
Always copy your entire press release into the body of the email (the blank white bit). Never attach your press release as a document. I’ll say it again: NEVER ATTACH YOUR PRESS RELEASE AS A DOCUMENT. It sounds ridiculous, but for busy news desks (who have to open dozens of email attachments every day) it’s just another way you sabotage your own release. Some newspaper spam sensors will also quarantine attachments too.
Don’t PDF your press release and then attach as a document. This drives news desks mad. You might as well not bother. No, you might as well surround your press release with chains, put it in a trunk, lock the trunk, then hide the key and pop us over a treasure map with instructions of where you’ve buried it. Amazingly, some large national organisations still PDF press releases. This means for some newspapers, it makes it nearly impossible to easily cut and paste for a follow up on a desk diary, or upload to a webpage. Your office may have Windows 7 – don’t assume everyone else has.
Always take the name of the reporter you were dealing with or have sent information too. If your material isn’t getting into the paper, try and identify who in the newspaper writes about subject and cultivate a direct relationship with them.
If you’re in PR or Marketing but don’t buy newspapers or at least visit news websites, it’s like saying you play golf but don’t own any clubs.
A) PRs calling at the worst possible times. PRs should not call when I’m on deadline to ask if I’ve received your press release, want to speak to some 3rd tier person at a 4th tier company, etc. And NEVER call someone during the Budget (a young PR did that this year – to be fair, I think it may have been her account director’s fault but still)
B) Do not bombard me with the same email. Recently a few PRs have been sending me speculative offer emails to speak to their clients. Normally I welcome these. But sending them again, week after week, after I have already politely declined the first time is just rude.
C) Do not send large, unrequested files. Journalists’ inboxes tend to have small memory limits, which means the 20 meg jpeg of some bloke who moved jobs some PR has sent out en masse is going to crash a lot of people’s email.
WE’RE A SUNDAY!
KNOW YOUR JOURNALISTS – people working on Sunday newspapers have different interests to those on daily papers/newswire/website. Sunday hacks work primarily on a forward looking basis, so asking if we are interested in a press release that goes out on a Wednesday is redundant question. We are not.
I work for a Sunday title – don’t bother offering ANYTHING that’s not embargoed for Sunday. I regularly get PRs telling me: “Yes, we did offer it to the dailies but nobody used it so we thought you’d like it.” If it’s not of interest in the first place do us all a favour and bin it. Oh, and while you’re at it, try and find out what the word embargo actually means. It’s not once or twice I’ve had to explain that to a (young) PR.
Some colleagues have pointed out PRs often fail to research the titles they are approaching and bombard you with everything under the sun. I will not attend a cat’s christening in a picturesque south coast English village attended by some non entity reality TV star and I most certainly will not waste column inches to cover it for I am based in Scotland. Try and think of the relevance – if it is not a truly national story you are offering or has nothing whatsoever to do, in my case, Scotland, don’t send it.
Out of respect, I often do reply to various emails and say they are not of interest but thank you for keeping us in mind. What I can’t stand is when they come back trying to explain why, indeed, it should be of interest. It will never work.
FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT
I hate phone calls asking if I got that email; over-familiarity from callers who then proceed to give me a long list of things I’d be interested in – when I’m patently not interested or have the time.
Press releases with no subject line. I don’t read these as a matter of course now.
MAPS ARE YOUR FRIEND
I work in local radio in Northern Ireland. Many, many releases have no bearing on life in NI, never mind for a three-minute bulletin. Calls following up on these mails, especially near the top of the hour, are distracting and mean I can come across as rude when I’ve other deadlines to consider.
BACK TO BACK TO BASICS
1.) A press release with no actual news in it. Unbelievably, I still get these. An explanation of what a company *does* is patently not news, so stop pretending it is. Any PR worth their salt should always try and find out something interesting about their client or don’t bother.
2.) Attachments. Why put the text of a press release in a Microsoft Word doc or PDF when you can incorporate it in the email? I haven’t got time to wait for whirring circles before I can read the info. News editors literally decide in a few seconds what’s going on the list and what’s binned.
3.) Pictures. Poor quality/irrelevant images are the bane of my life. If you’re going to send a picture make sure it’s a big enough file to be published, the subject of the story is actually in the picture (you’ll be surprised how many aren’t) and that it’s actually attention-grabbing. A picture of a bunch of middle-aged suits smiling inanely is rubbish and I won’t publish it.
4.) Quotes. I received a press release the other day without a quote so I deleted it without further ado. Make sure every release has one and that it adds something to the story without repeating information contained elsewhere in the piece.
5.) Get to the point! If the press release is a survey about the most popular cheese in Britain, say what that is in the intro and go on to list the runners-up in the next par. I don’t want the drop-intro hell of ‘For time immemorial cheese has been a staple of the national diet – either as a simple snack or a hearty meal around the family table.’ Leave the rambling to us!
6.) Don’t ring me to ask if I’ve got your press release unless you’re giving me a really good exclusive story. End of.
A pet peeve is PRs who can’t be bothered to correctly spell the name of the product they are pushing. This happens much more often than you might think.
Those awful web-based press releases where you have to sit around and wait for the pictures to load, and even worse, people who say “click here to view the pictures” need condemning to the outer circle of hell!
ANYTHING ELSE I CAN HELP WITH?
Only that can they PLEASE not: phone to ask if an email’s arrived, then phone again to check if we’ve used it – then ask if we can send them a copy for their client. We don’t have time to sort this out. They’re getting paid by their client, they should keep their eyes open to see if it’s been used in the paper or on the web. It’s even worse when they get in touch several weeks after it’s appeared. The is assumption that we have time to go and trawl through back copies to check if their copy, which could be only 50-100 words, has gone in, plus find and envelope/write addresses and post.
BACK TO BACK TO BACK TO BASICS
1. Don’t give false hope to journalists; don’t “talk up” an event or a client. If the event or person you are promoting is not as exciting, funny, sexy or outrageous as you have suggested, the journalist will be disappointed – and bitter, especially if they have driven a long distance or spent a lot of time on it. Worst of all, you won’t get your publicity and your client will resent you for this.
2. Think pictures, especially when you are dealing with print journalists; unlike TV, radio or online magazines, newspapers cannot rely on sound or movement to grab attention. A still image is very powerful in print – but you need to supply the material. I was recently invited to write an article on a pagan ceremony, but had to drop it when the people involved insisted on turning up in anoraks. They thought they would not be taken seriously if they posed for photos in ceremonial garb – well, we took them so seriously that we cancelled the job.
3. Don’t be a party pooper. I cannot count the number of times PR people have asked me to “tone down” my article, to leave out certain pictures or quotes, or to leave out certain people. These PRs come across as nervous control-freaks – and bring out the journalist’s rebellious streak. Any attempt to make a story “tasteful” – ie, boring, less newsworthy, less appealing to readers – will backfire spectacularly. Or it won’t go in at all – in which case you have wasted our time, and journalists will put you on a blacklist.
4. Don’t hover around while we are interviewing your clients. If you can’t trust your clients to speak for themselves, or they can’t trust themselves, they shouldn’t be speaking to journalists at all – in fact, such vulnerable people shouldn’t be let out in public.
5. Don’t send invitations by post; busy journalists are rarely at their desks or even at home, and we don’t have time to drop by the office or come home to pick up our post. We could be on the road for weeks at a time.
6. Avoid sending attachments with emails. We may not be able to open them if we are in an area where the broadband connection is dodgy. Especially avoid sending audiovisual clips; they are time-consuming. A quick email is best; we should be able to read it in less than 30 seconds. If we want more info, we’ll ask you.
7. Don’t tart-up your press releases to look like newspaper articles with headlines and catchy intros, etc; it is insulting to us that you think we are lazy and corrupt enough to stick our bylines over your press releases. Editors are understandably pissed off when this happens, especially if you pitch the story to more than one newspaper; if it appears verbatim in two newspapers, the chances are that readers will see both and think one newspaper is copying the other.
I just wanted to put in a plea – applicable to journalists as well I suppose – not to use those Americanisms that impoverish the language. I know that sounds pompous, but when people think it’s cooler (or whatever the motivation is!) to say alternate rather than alternative, or take short cuts with the past tense (“Honey, I shrunk the kids”, as opposed to “Honey, I have shrunk the kids”!), or use brought instead of took (for everything even when the object is being taken from here somewhere else) they reduce the precision that English is capable of in the UK, but is not in the USA.
THE SOUND OF SILENCE
I’m in radio – What annoys me is when a PR sends you an event / story but when it comes to it they can’t provide the guests. It’s just a complete waste of my time.
Also telling me something would make a great feature for me when they clearly haven’t got a clue what the programme is about. I know they are sending it to a lot of people but I think it would be more effective if it were more targeted.
Another irritation is when they can’t provide the guest but they then “give permission” for us to use our own archive material of that person from a previous programme. We don’t need their permission to use our own material and this makes them look very naïve.
Also sending us “quotes” like that is a substitute for a live interview.
Also if we’re working to daily deadlines, if we’ve phoned you with an interview request, don’t leave the office without letting us know what’s happening, even if it’s a no. It’s incredibly frustrating to realise someone has just gone home, when you thought they were working on a guest for you.
My two penneth (I’ve been a regional journalist for nearly 20 years).
Pet hates of mine include PRs who…
- Simply write PRESS RELEASE in the email subject box
- Or write “Pitch” in the email subject box
- Ramble at you for a while without even ascertaining if you are the right person to speak to about National Halitosis Week
- Litter a press release with bad punctuation and grammar.
- Seem more interested in the idea of a sexy PR ’ lifestyle’ than coming up with anything of any worth to a journalist.
My pet hate is PR companies that begin ‘Hi Lisa, How are you today?’ – when we’ve never had any previous correspondence. I’m always tempted to reply by telling them how I really ‘am’ that day – just to see if they’re genuinely interested.
EXPATRIATE OR EX-PATRIOT?
I often get press releases relating to wealth management using the word “ex-patriot” when they probably mean expatriate. The former likely an insult to all those hard working Brits that you refer!
BLANKET MAIL DROP
Anyone who emails me: “As you’ve shown interest in this before we’re sending you…..” = bin. Chances are I not only haven’t shown interest but wouldn’t on the worst day I’ve ever had. Much more likely to be a blanket mail drop.
Strangers who send me: “Many thanks for your previous coverage. Hope you can do just as well with this.” = bin.
Any PR company which sends me a “local to you” press release naming a town which is neither my town, any town within our circulation area or, indeed, any town in our entire county. This is just plain lazy and, if they can’t be bothered, why should I? = bin.
Any PR company which send me regional statistics and a gushingly “dramatic” overcomment. Modern journalists need a bit of help because of time shortages. I happen to be old school and so would make the time but getting a bit more help with regional broken down into county figures makes it so much more likely that I’ll pay attention. If I know the figures look impressive for Dorset then I’m more than prepared to put the effort in to get them broken down even further — if possible — so I can see how my circulation area fares.
1. If I call you (the PR) to ask for a comment or help with a case study please don’t let me go through the full explanation of what I’m looking for only to ask me to put everything I just told you in an email. It’s a waste of my time and yours.
2. If you insist on an email remember that experience has told me that (a) you won’t respond quickly if at all and (b) any email response is likely to be in corporate speak and rarely in a form of words which bears any resemblance to how people actually speak.
3. If you do send me an email response keep it short. There is nothing worse than getting a 500 word answer full of corporate speak and advertorial puff when you’ve asked somebody for an opinion or response to go with a story that’s only 350 words long. The chances are (if I use your response at all) I will cherry pick the best two or three sentences and you’ll complain it was taken out of context.
Also bear in mind that if it’s an industry type story and I’m calling you as “market leaders for an expert opinion” while you’re considering a response to my email I am phoning other PRs and sources. First one back with a good response gets the publicity for their client.
4. Don’t tell me (without good legal or accuracy reasons) not to use a certain word or what the angle to a story should be. Recently one of my reporters was doing a piece about an old petrol station being demolished and the site decontaminated so it could be used for other things. The PR told (not asked) my reporter not to use the word ‘decontaminate’ because of its negative connotations (although that’s what they were doing). That’s like telling a “three-year-old not to touch the red button”. ‘Decontaminate’ was the third word used in the intro to the story.
5. I run a news agency selling news and features to national papers, magazines and anybody looking for content so my deadline is always NOW or ASAP.
6. Please don’t treat me as an afterthought. If you can’t get the story into a national don’t then call me with an “exclusive” in the hope that I will succeed where you’ve failed. I’ve worked on the newsdesks of the Times, Telegraph, Independent, Mail, People and others and I can smell a story like that a mile off.
7. If you’re sending to an agency like mine tell me what papers you’ve sent it to or if it’s gone to PA so I can then look for a different angle or try putting it to other outlets.
8. Don’t invite Sunday Correspondents to mid-week press events the dailies are going to unless you have something different to offer. Daily papers often follow up stories in the Sundays (look at any Monday morning edition) but rarely does it happen in reverse.
9. If you’re offering photos with your story get them taken by a professional. Too often I get a story from a PR which I think will make the papers but when I ask for a pic it turns out to have been taken by somebody in the PR agency’s (or their client’s) office with a point and shoot camera. As a result the pic doesn’t make it and the story gets spiked too. You wouldn’t expect your plumber to be able to take out an appendix so why on earth is the office junior expected to be an expert news photographer?
10. Increasingly, in the multi-media age, my agency gets involved in supplying video news packages. If you are going to offer a pre-recorded comment or interview from a company spokesman or the CEO please don’t over-brand it. Get it done properly with good sound quality and please don’t plaster the company logo all over it or the background. And don’t let the person talking start every sentence with the name of the company and website address.
AN F IN GEOGRAPHY
I don’t know if you covered this, but increasingly I find myself on mailing lists that are entirely irrelevant to me. I was recently sent, “Abbey Crouch gets WAG hair of the year”, when I’m based in Nairobi covering conflict and development. Laziness like that does the whole PR profession a discredit.
SHORT AND SWEET
Be succinct, but exciting with it. The people you are dealing with are busy, so the more information that you can provide upfront but in a snappy and engaging way, the better. But this information has to have an angle. ‘Man makes music.’ Well whoop de doo. ‘New track from Joe Bloggs recorded whilst dangling off a tightrope’ – details are there alongside a quirky fact to run with.
Just one key thing that I think would help PR agencies – and journalists -immensely. Instead of using privileged kids who have little experience of life never mind newspapers and TV and radio news desks, employ ‘experienced’ journalists – and I mean experienced – who have actually worked in the media, been there, done it and actually KNOW what a story is. That would probably be much more productive for EVERYONE.
STEP OUT OF THE NICHE
While it used to be – when there was more space – that journalists could get in “quirky/interesting/nice project” type pieces based on a single instance of good practice, I simply cannot get these commissioned any more. So your story has to be something that addresses an issue that is of wider interest than just to your immediate stakeholders and audience.
THE LOCAL PAPER VIEWPOINT
• Must be relevant to site
• No photo no publish
• No PDF
• In plain English not SEOese
• Under 1,000 words max
• Not stuffed with hyperlinks
If your client is spending ££££s on advertising with our commercial rivals and nothing with us you’ve had it.
So there you have it. We hope this report contributes to a more harmonious relationship between PR professionals and journalists.
The plot summary, we think, is “be clear, be brief, be interesting.” Get those aspects right and as Yogi Berra famously said, “with all due respect, it ain’t rocket surgery.”
Well, the first two are easy anyway. The third is where we come in.
Managing Director | Houston PR
07702 684290 | firstname.lastname@example.org | @HamishMThompson
We’d like to thank the many correspondents that contributed to our report, especially Harry Wallop, Daily Telegraph; Martin Hickman, The Independent; Sophy Ridge, Sky News; Jane Hamilton, The Sun; Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC; Jonathan Prynn, Evening Standard; Simon Hoggart, The Guardian; Colin Donald, Sunday Herald; Martin Flanagan, The Scotsman; Rebecca Smithers, The Guardian; Lulu Sinclair, Sky News; Chris Smith, The Guardian; Ruth Sunderland, The Daily Mail; Kathryn Gaw, The Press Association; Peter Campbell, The Daily Mail; Lisa Armstrong, The Daily Telegraph; Marion Dakers, City AM; Samuel Muston, The Independent; Fiona Walsh, The Guardian; Ellis Butcher; Geoff Ho, The Sunday Express; Paula Murray, Scottish Sunday Express; Tony Rice; Katherine Hamer, The Literary Paramedic; Jim Motavalli; Kevin O’Sullivan, Business Scotland; Becca Gliddon, Exmouth Journal; Seth Godin; Tim Spanton, The Sun; Kay Hill; Geraldine Comiskey, Sunday World; Melissa York, City AM; Maria Court, Daily Echo; Lisa Youd, Army and You; Lucy Grewcock; Mark Townsend; Harry Walton; Paul Kelbie, Flag Media News and Features; Jessica Hatcher; Joe Lepper; Francesca Baker; Colin Mafham, Sunday Express; Louise Tickle; Charlie Custer; Stephen Slominski, Eastleigh News – plus the dozens that chose to remain anonymous.