Thursday 26, October 2017 by Jessica Combes

Is PR a help or hindrance?


PR agencies are entrusted with their clients’ brands, but are they damaging the brands without even realising it?

Last month, Alex Malouf uploaded a post on his website entitled, The Art of the Pitch – Advice from UAE Media on what works, and what doesn’t, where he’d received feedback from members of the media on how they were approached by PR agencies.

The link was shared on Twitter, using #UAEPR, and a number of us had a chuckle at some of the scenarios, because a lot of what was described was all too familiar. But it stops at the pitch. I want to address all the ways PRs can go wrong thereafter.

Once a PR executive manages to get their client past the gatekeeper (so to speak), there are varying insidious ways that they can do irreparable damage to their client’s brand as well as their own. I can illustrate with a number of examples, but most of them can be presented in my experience with one person.

I received an introduction email about a year ago from a company owner who listed their entrepreneurs that they were representing and said that they would be available for an interview. It looked promising and one in particular caught my eye. I replied to express my interest in interviewing the candidate and their reply included a colleague in CC (we will call him Dave) and this is where it all went rapidly downhill.

Before I had a chance to email Dave, he’d jumped the gun with an email that concluded with him demanding to confirm that this interview was going on the cover, and when it would be published. To all PRs, please take note: NEVER ask/demand/inquire/’just check’ if your client is going on the cover. We are more than capable of deciding who we would like on the cover of the magazines we sweat blood over.

While taken aback, I politely replied that the cover interview was never discussed, but Dave was having none of it. My phone rang, and upon answering was on the receiving end of a brisk voice demanding to know ‘how we can make this cover story happen’.  I knocked that one back pretty quickly, but nary five minutes later I received another email from him with examples of articles written by his client and ‘could I possibly feature them on our website?’ I conceded to running one, following extensive editing (read: practical rewrite), but told Dave the others weren’t suitable.

The next hurdle came to arranging the face-to-face interview with the client, which by this stage I was thoroughly dreading. His client, based on almost the opposite end of Dubai, would have preferred 10 or 11am. Sorry Dave, the only person whose time I will prioritise is my own. When it became apparent I would not budge, magically the client could accommodate a 9am interview. Amazing.

Then came one of my favourite parts of the interview process: “Please can you send through the questions for the interview?” I will gladly share talking points prior an interview. It allows the interviewee time to prepare the information I may need, as well as any data/figures that will be relevant. But I flatly refuse to share my questions. I do not know who has trained/encouraged/told PRs that it is ok to ask a journalist for their questions prior an interview, but it is not. For one thing, it smacks of censorship.

If an interviewee insists on seeing questions beforehand, that not only points to diva-like behaviour, but it also implies that they are not fully equipped with the knowledge of their industry or product. If it’s a massive company with layer upon layer of approvals required for anything to go to print, frankly, it’s even worse. If a company spokesperson cannot be given the autonomy to speak to the media, they shouldn’t be allowed to, period.

The same goes for submitting copy to be read before it gets published. I’m losing count of the number of times I’ve had executives lean back in their chairs before we start saying, “So I’ll see the piece before it goes to press, right?” before almost falling out of said chair when they receive a deadpan, “No.” I was about to start a phone interview with a Group Manager of a large company who declined to continue when I would not let him read the interview before sending it to press. I gave a four-page spread to his competitor.

I digress.

On the day of the interview with Dave’s client, Dave was late. I had already started the interview when Dave waltzed in. He immediately started speaking Arabic to his client and then greeted me as an afterthought. During parts of the interview, Dave’s phone rang twice. I wrapped it up and got out of there as quickly as I could, but not before being hit with my favourite question of all: “So, when will this be published?”

#UAEPR, you need to stop asking that. Just stop. Editorial copy, no matter how carefully planned, is always subject to last minute changes. Journalists liaise with a considerable number of PRs and contributing writers, and at any given moment a breaking news story could occur; I cannot commit to a publishing date, and no, I will NOT ‘keep you posted’. We have a website, try checking it. If the piece isn’t in the online flipbook (which is the virtual copy of the magazine that has been printed) then it hasn’t been published yet. All emails in this regard now just go ignored, not to be rude, but I simply do not have the time to pander to your client's demands. Dave played a role in lowering my tolerance saturation point.

I had previously explained to him that there was a good chance the piece would be online only, but he had it in his head that the interview was going in the magazine. He hounded me with phone calls, emails and WhatsApp messages. If there was a three-day period where I didn't hear from him, he was on a go-slow. I bumped into him at an event where the final straw was him looking me in the eye and saying, “You said it would go in the magazine.”

Up until that moment I’d been wrestling with how to feature his client in the magazine, and possibly even get her on the cover, because here’s the kicker–the client was pleasant and actually rather interesting. I wanted to get her on the cover if I could. But once Dave opened his mouth with that gem, all bets were off. I wrote up around 1,000 words and put it online, and that was the end of it. Dealing with Dave was just more hassle than it was worth.

I’d relayed my adventures in dealing with Dave to the rest of the editorial team as each event occurred, but after this last incident, I asked them not to forward any emails from his company again. His email manner is so abrasive that none of the editors want to deal with him either.

Dave has recently resurfaced in my inbox and has been politely declined each time. While his behaviour was somewhat extreme, it illustrates the damage PRs can do to a client or brand/s by behaving badly. By refusing to deal with him, I’m not touching any of his clients. Having watched me almost rip my hair out in frustration, my colleagues don't really want to either. Why would they?

I do not know one single journalist who has the time to accommodate the type of behaviour set out above, particularly when PRs get stroppy. This week, one of my colleagues received a phone call from a PR pitching an interview. My colleague politely asked how the interview would be relevant for a financial publishing house. The PR’s response was to yell down the phone, “Well, if you do not want to do it, fine!” She hung up on my colleague, who relayed the conversation (since we’d only caught one side of it and were dying to know what 'that was all about') and we laughed it off. Later that day, the PR tried the same pitch on with another colleague and was turned down. She might have managed to get  somewhere with her pitch but the damage had been done. Her reaction to my first colleague was the stuff of legend by the time she got round to calling the second. She had no chance; she'd blown it with all five titles in our stable.

I’m not saying journalists are a dream to deal with; we’re not. We’re a cranky, caffeine-fuelled, cantankerous bunch. But we also operate under immense pressure and deadlines, and we do not need PRs and their clients trying to dictate how we do our jobs, what we produce, and when we produce it. We know what we need to do for our titles.