The most stationary of all stationery items, scissors hate to be hurried. I learned this as a child. You did too, probably. Don't run with scissors. A clear and simple instruction. Pencils, glue, staples... no problem. For them, like us, it's a finite existence. Time is short so don't dilly dally. But don't run with scissors.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

a letter to the truth fairy

A lot of rubbish has been spouted in recent weeks about so-called PR spam, ie the business of PR agencies and their ilk emailing press releases to journalists, en masse.

Most recently, a site calling itself An Inconvenient PR Truth has hopped on this rickety old bandwagon.

I can be quite an opinionated and confrontational chap at times so I thought I'd wade in with a few convenient ripostes.

Context – I've been in the PR industry for about 10 years. Before that I was a journalist blah, blah, blah... you can read that over there under the "About Me" heading over there. --->

I've done the inbox-under-siege-by-hundreds-of-press-releases-per-day thing. I'm also old enough to have had hundreds of press releases delivered every day in the mail (you know, snail mail) every day – in sacks. Actual sacks. On one occasion a room full of sacks of letters from readers. OK, they're not press releases but they were equally unsolicited.

I didn't view it as spam or anything approximating it. Was I missing something? It all came with the territory. If you've worked in a busy newsroom you ought to know that.

I have a real problem with the "Bill of Rights" on An Inconvenient PR Truth. I'll pick out a few things I particularly dislike about it.

Right 1 – Permission required
Press releases should only be sent to Recipients who have given express or implied permission. Implied permission meaning the recipient has stated publicly that they are happy to receive press releases.
The very act of becoming a journalist carries an implication that you are aware of the existence of things like PR companies and press releases. So there's your basic principle of implied permission. Everything after that is merely degrees of irritation.

Right 4 – Read publication first
Before any correspondence is entered into, the PR person will have first researched the Recipient's subject focus and read the publication or articles they write or publish to ensure that the content is relevant.
Hard to argue against. But good luck with enforcing that one.

Right 6 – Types of release

A Recipient has the right to receive press releases about 'types' of stories that they are likely to be interested in and not announcements of any kind just because of an industry categorisation.
I foresee an increase in the sale of crystal balls.

Right 7 – Telephone calling

After receiving a press release the Recipient should not expect a follow up call from the sender. Acts of such kind only waste time and have no bearing on whether a press release is used for a news story.
The first sentence implies that journalists read every email they receive. Which is not only a whopping great lie but it seems to undermine the whole "PR spam" point of view. As in... if it's spam why are you reading it?

That second sentence is also just plain wrong. I can think of too many examples to list here of journalists who, after being called, were able to put previously emailed press releases to good use. As news stories. And then called / emailed asking for follow up info for subsequent stories.

Right 8 – Succinct headlines
A Recipient has the right to receive press releases with succinctly written headlines so a decision of interest can be made quickly.
Define succinct. Something tells me this here Bill of Rights wasn't put together by someone with a keen legal mind.

This whole PR vs journo thing is a jaded, even out-dated, take on things. It would carry more weight, however, if there wasn't such an appetite among journalists for press releases and other PR-generated content with which to fill space. As a colleague pointed out earlier today, there are plenty of publications that don't feed themselves.

Standards could certainly be higher on both sides of the fence. But surely that's true of most trades and professions.

Maybe the PR industry should up the quality threshold when dealing with journos.

Don't know how to ask a probing question? Can't structure an interview? Get facts wrong even after you've been spoon-fed them? No idea how to use commas? Do you think second-sourcing might mean putting more ketchup on your chips? Have you ever agreed to come to a briefing and then didn't show up without letting someone know you've changed your mind? Then you're off the list – no interviews, briefings, press releases, photography, lunches, trips, etc etc.

How does that sound?

I agree there's plenty of room for improving some of the practices that go on around press releases and how they are issued and followed up. But it would require a lot of cooperation from the PR industry, media list/distribution companies and journalists.

I shan't be holding my breath.

Friday, 15 January 2010

signs of the times

Nothing new here. Feel free to move along.

I got to thinking recently (and not for the first time) about the smoking ban in the UK.

This was prompted by something I’d heard on that curate’s egg of a radio station, BBC Radio 4.

The programme in question reported that in spite of what is often thought of as a European-wide, EU-derived ban on smoking in public places, it is still OK to smoke in public in Belgium. Oh the irony of being able to spark up in a bar just around the corner from the EU parliament.

The same item went on to describe how the owners of two bars in Berlin had gone to court to attempt to over-turn the smoking ban on the grounds it had damaged their business.

They won!

They now have the legal right to have a separate smoking room in their bars – with the proviso that no food may be served there.

This seems like a welcome outbreak of common sense to me. I wonder if we’ll see the same thing in the UK. Somehow I doubt it.

At various times in my life I have been a smoker and a non-smoker. I’ve never felt that I needed government intervention where that choice was concerned. Like the overwhelming majority of people who have smoked in this country, I knew the ins and outs of the health implications before I chose to start.

I think it’s a very good idea for separate spaces in pubs and bars for those who wish to smoke and those who do not. Then people can make choices. By and large, most people are capable of making choices.

But where the UK smoking ban and I really fall out was the requirement for all buildings members of the public may occasionally enter to display the same no smoking sign. Just to remind us that the law that had banned smoking in public buildings in the UK applied to public buildings in the UK.

Never before had I wished I owned a business that printed signs, but the government spent millions of taxpayers’ money printing these ridiculous signs and one can only assume that someone somewhere with a sign making business did very well out of it.

What next though? If we need a sign on every public building to say smoking is against the law, how about one that says breaking & entering is against the law? You know, for the avoidance of any doubt – just in case potential burglars might need reminding.

Then we could all get a t-shirt printed that has something written on it like “NO MURDERING – killing people, such as the wearer of this garment, is against the law.”

Sound absurd? No more so though, surely, than the epidemic of no smoking signs.