The real life journo/PRO divide

Journalists often moan about receiving irrelevant press releases from PROs who clearly have no idea what they do or what they like.

As a coach, I support both journalists and PROs on their career paths, but when I read a rant status update from a hack criticising a flack, I always put myself in the shoes of the junior account executive who’s just got it in the neck.

I’ve been that exec. At one point we’ve all been that exec. in one form or another. I’d like to take a moment to explain to the journalist how and why that email may have landed in their inbox.

Let’s say the press release is from a PR agency representing an organic shampoo brand. Tracing back to how it got there, let’s begin with this agency – perhaps a smallish start-up – winning this new client.

A typical story

The agency will have competed fiercely to land the brief, putting forward creds, ideas… more ideas… case studies and testimonials. They will have prepped for pitches and held chemistry meetings before having to perform their pitch in front of a panel of decision-makers all having their ‘Dragon’s Den’ moment. Of course, everyone has washed their hair in the named brand that day so they all smell of hemp, which is unfortunate, but part of the ‘client immersion’. And if things went their way there might have been some sort of dinner or drinks evening, Mad Men style, but with vegan smoothies and no smoking.

Finally, when they do get the news they’ve been shortlisted this agency might have agreed to drive down the price they quoted, and drive a good few miles to the client’s trendy warehouse office in the middle of nowhere, in order to finally sign the contract. And – bad news – the client wants to hike up the number of days on the contract, but not the retainer price, in order for the agency to secure that deal.

When the blood ink is finally dry on the agreement (woohoo!), the agency tweets to say they want to recruit some new team members to get their teeth into this exciting new, on-trend, start-up client. The selection has to happen fairly fast as the client ideally wants coverage next week, tomorrow if possible, for an unexpected urgent launch. The hunt for the perfect junior PR exec begins. The agency is after experience in this sector (organic cosmetics) and lifestyle contacts too, but the price has been driven down by the client and the agency really wants to succeed, so they hire a VERY junior person who has limited contacts or experience, but ALL the enthusiasm.

Green fingers

The first task is for the shiny new junior team member to compile a media list. They try to tap into the agency’s knowledge and expertise, but they want to make a good impression so they don’t ask around too much. They’re new and nervous. They try to cobble the list together, whilst getting to grips with a media database they’ve never used before, and navigating the new agency culture and office vibe. In preparation they’ve read some relevant magazines, but the client wants blanket coverage so they can’t possibly know every journalist. Let’s say the shampoo brand has sponsored an edgy music festival, and that’s what the release is about, so the exec ticks a box on the database for ‘music journalists’ as well as beauty and lifestyle. A trendy young rap singer is a fan of their shampoo and she’s their new ambassador, headlining this festival. It’s a non-story but here we are, having won the account and wanting to make a great impression.

Then the press release goes back and forth between the account manager and the client. The exec is desperate for some feedback on their media list, but everyone is so busy in the office they tell them, in a well-meaning but abrupt way, to use their common sense and just get on with it. So the list is finalised, and the release goes out into the inbox of the unsuspecting journalist who once, ten years ago, wrote one article about a shampoo and/or music events in Bristol (let’s say that’s where it is). And this journalist has ignored the spammy-looking emails from various media databases, asking them to update their profile ever since, so that initial box-tick stuck, which is why they get irrelevant releases every single day.

A sad ending

And when the press release pops into the inbox of the unsuspecting journalist who used to be a city-based hard-drinking party girl or bloke, and is now a freelancer with twins and a dog, living in the middle of nowhere… the freelance journalist updates their Twitter status with a sarcastic comment about PROs, and the PRO reads it and feels like crap, as their account manager puts increasing amounts of pressure on them to follow up with the media list for a client report due by the end of the day. And the journalist wades through hundreds of similarly poorly targeted emails, wasting time they could be using to pitch in an idea to an editor, or fulfilling a commission.

Written by Helen Campbell, business coach