A night in Balham

Mention Balham to most people – especially those old enough to remember Peter Sellers’s radio work – and they’ll gleefully respond with the phrase “Gateway to the South!” For the longest time there was little else to recommend the place. Bombed out of all recognition in the London Blitz, it’s now just a row of fairly unattractive low rent shops. All right it’s got a Waitrose. And it’s not far from Clapham. And it’s handy for the Northern Line. But having an easy means of escape isĀ  hardly the highest praise that can be heaped on a place.

However, for those in the know there is now a very good reason to visit Balham. Tucked away on a side street, and very often ignored by those crawling between the pubs on the high street is the Balham Bowls Club. It was until a few years ago a functioning bowls club, frequented by distinguished gentlemen who no doubt muttered over their G&Ts about the raucous goings-on in the Be@One next door. And quite right too. Terrible place. Full of loud youngsters drinking brightly coloured cocktails. But then – as is often the way with places frequented by muttering old men – the tide of time overtook them and they found themselves having to sell their clubhouse. It was bought by someone who had the bright idea of turning it into a bar, and then the even brighter idea of not doing the usual strip-it-out-and-give-it-a-retro-refit but just leaving it as it is. So, all the old armchairs are there, the snooker room, the board listing past club presidents, the glasses that you remember from the 70s and wonder where they went to, the dusty portrait of the Queen, and best of all that oak-panelled sense of calm that you only ever get in places like that.

So, it’s a superb place for a couple of drinks of a Wednesday evening. And I was lucky enough to be there doing exactly that last night. I was even luckier to be doing it with one of the most charming and interesting PR executives I know. Which brings me away from ruminations on my local area and bars, and onto something closer to the alleged subject of this blog…..

We were discussing the many differences between working in-house and at an agency. She works in-house and has a great job that she loves. She had many good things to say about the agencies she worked at before going clientside. She even had some good things to say about the agencies who now work for her and pitch to her. But one thing neither she nor I could work out is why agencies insist on putting their most junior staff through the ordeal of calling up journalists and pitching stories to them. Very often this involves giving them fairly weak angles on unexciting stories, sitting them at a desk with a phone and telling them to get on with it. It rarely results in them placing a story, and more often results in them alienating the journalist, damaging the client brand and making the poor PR executive wish he or she was working somewhere else.

So, last night as we watched a large fluffy dog pad into the room and jump the queue at the bar to be served a bowl of fresh water, we agreed that the practice is rife and counter-productive in the long run (agencies making their junior staff do these ring-rounds, not dogs jumping queues in bars). She’d had to do it many times at the start of her career and had found it a largely embarassing and pointless exercise – she now builds long-term relationships with key journalists and phones them up when she’s got something genuinely interesting to discuss with them. I get a couple of calls a week from people who clearly don’t really understand what they’re pitching to me, and don’t really want to be doing it – I find it largely embarassing and pointless and would much prefer it if PR executives took the time to build a long-term relationship with me and called me when they have something interesting to say. I know that every other journalist would prefer that. I know that anyone who’s ever worked in a PR agency would prefer that. I know that clients would get more coverage and so would prefer it.

So, the question is this: why do agencies insist on putting their junior staff through this ordeal?

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5 Responses to “A night in Balham”

  1. Amanda Harrison Says:

    A lovely post. All rings true, and pretty much highlights what’s wrong with the PR agency model. Why do you need an associate director, account director, account manager and account exec on your business (with the associate director charging a huge fee for a mere couple of hours per month on your business to edit the press releases the poor account exec spends hours struggling on). It’s a humiliating process for account execs to be forced to do ring arounds, which merely clock up the timesheets. Hire a PR agency, but have a senior person assigned rather than a team of four which inevitably means the poor account exec does all the work.

  2. Peter Says:

    .. and is there honey still for tea?

  3. Maxi Says:

    It’s funny, because I always thought it was just me who had a phobia of calling journalists up to pitch in stories. Even if it has a sort of interesting news angle. I seem to spend more time psyching myself up than actually doing the pitch, which invariably lasts all of 30 seconds.

    But then how do you build relationships with journalists? I have a couple of friends who are Journo’s, but unfortunately, they don’t work on the tech publications (most of my clients are techy) and it really would be pointless pitching to them, even if they’re not going to tell me to get on my bike! I’d more than happily take a journo out for a pint, get to know their pain points, and discuss my clients and the kind of stuff they’d want to hear from them. But it’s not that simple is it.

    The journalists I actually like are the ones who reply to email pitches just to say, ’sorry, this isn’t strong enough for our publication’ or ‘we need stories that are X rather than Y’. At least then you know and don’t have to badger them just to satisfy your superiors!

    I might invent a meet and greet based on speed dating. Account execs can meet with journalists – three minutes to get to know one another. Then at the end, the journalists tell the moderators who they want to have more dialogue, and get given the AEs details to say how do!

  4. Celia Dixon Says:

    Hi Maxi,

    Do you know what one of the best pieces of advice I was given at an event was? When your building your contacts don’t let you taking a journalist out rely on whether or not your company lets you and/or will pay for it. See it as investing inyour own future.

    Sounds expensive? Not really. I’ve worked in the Tech space before and I found it to be one of the nicest areas there is in terms of the journalists. What I would do is get on the phone (or email) and invite them out for a drink. Then you can put a face to a name, have a giggle and also share info on your clients. Also… lot of journalists aren’t being schmoozed as much at the moment because of the tightening of budgets.

    Once I’ve taken a journalist out and got to know them I find that not only is calling them much much easier, they also tend to know that your emails are worth reading so will pick them out of the hundreds I imagine go into their box daily.

    For me it is these things and always hitting their deadlines for interviews etc that has helped me to build up my journalist base.

    Failing that – speed dating? Like it!

    Hope that was of some use!
    Celia

  5. Jennie Ludford Says:

    Oh my god, I could not agree more with your comments Alex. As an ex-journo, I have never understood why scared, underconfident junior PRs are given the task of selling a story in to the media.

    I believe it is because too many so-called ‘experienced’ PRs haven’t developed and honed their skills of selling-in themselves and see it as a way out – to palm the job off onto a junior.

    This is completely counter-productive and if experienced PR managers and directors can’t do it themselves by this stage, they really shouldn’t be in the job and are frauds. As you can tell I feel strongly about this.

    In my opinion, PR is all about relationships and a nose for what will get a journalist interested. Both these attributes develop with time and experience and therefore, expecting a junior exec to be able to do a good job on this front is foolish. Juniors need nurturing, inspiring and empowering….not bullying!

    The end!

    Jennie

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