Ten things PRs do that really annoy journalists – part six

Five more to go in this series. Just to recap for anyone joining late, this is a list of ten things that PRs do that really annoy journalists. It’s not meant to be an attack on individual PR professionals, or on the industry as a whole. (I’m not the sort of journalist who posts lists of PRs’ e-mail addresses saying he never wants to hear from them ever again – http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/columnists/article6977065.ece?openComment=true. Ouch.) I am though the sort of journalist who puts a lot of effort into building mutually beneficial relationships with others in the industry, and this is part of that effort.

So, with those caveats in place, here’s what I have so far:

1) Expect journalists to operate as an unpaid media montoring service
2) Going oddly silent/AWOL
3) Sending irrelevant press releases
4) Writing like a PR, not a real person
5) Pitching like they’re selling timeshare properties

Number 6 is fairly straightforward but is a perennial bugbear of mine, and of many other journalists. It is arranging conference call interviews.

They just don’t work. I’m not just talking about the practicalities. True, sometimes the technology doesn’t work. I particularly remember an interview with the VP of Sales of a US-based teleconferencing company; for about five minutes we had terrible interference on the line, but we’d spent a long time trying to arrange it and I really needed her quotes, so I persisted, asking her several times to restate the point she’d just made. She gamely struggled on, getting louder and louder, until finally I could just make it out above the crackling din – “I WAS SAYING THAT OUR SYSTEM SUFFERS FROM VERY LITTLE INTERFERENCE!” Very similar to a flat I once viewed above a busy road. The estate said something. I couldn’t hear so moved closer and asked her to repeat it. She said it again. Again it was drowned out by the rush of cars below. On the third attempt she shouted: “I WAS SAYING THAT THIS IS A VERY QUIET FLAT.” I could only reply sheepishly: “It’s not really though, is it?” “YES IT IS! VERY QUIET!” She wasn’t having it at all. I think the incessant sound of passing traffic might have driven her a little mad. But anyway, I digress, and to be fair on conference call technology, almost all of the time it works fine.

No, the real problem is that it ruins the dynamics of the conversation. Interviews work when there’s a journalist asking questions and an interviewee answering them. You can develop a rapport, progress the conversation in directions you both find interesting, really get to the crux of whatever it is you’re discussing. It takes a bit of time to get beyond the formal introductions and the wariness that most interviewees feel, but if you’re a half-decent interviewer you reach that point, past where people are trotting out safe truisms, where they’re really delving deep into their expertise and coming up with something fresh. And that’s where you find the really interesting material for your articles.

The problem with conference calls is that you never get beyond the formality, the wariness, and the truisms. The interviewees spend too much time thinking about the other participants on the call and not enough time thinking about the issue in hand. They’re wondering who’s best placed to deal with a particular question. They’re worrying about saying something off message. They’re trying to impress their colleagues. I don’t blame them – it’s just how people tend to behave in a group.

I do though blame the PR executive who allowed it to happen.

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