How to annoy journalists without really trying

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Recently Alexandra Cain wrote an interesting article for the Sydney Morning Herald “My Small Business” section with the headline “Three things that annoy journalists” read here.

At Pritchitt Partners we’re always interested in what journalists expect from us and our clients, and we keep up to date with what they like and dislike when we talk to them during our routine contact.

We know that many journalists would have the same complaints as Alexandra, and every journalist can recite a long list of other things that annoy them more – particularly when it comes to inept public relations practitioners.

Common complaints by journalists include:

  • press releases that are badly written – including those that are completely product- and company-focused and littered with unsubstantiated superlatives, and those that are full of jargon or “management-ese”
  • releases that quote people who not contactable, or that are full of opinions that are not attributed to anyone
  • assumptions by companies that, because they advertise in a publication, stories will automatically get used there
  • sending gifts or freebies and expecting product coverage
  • the promise of an exclusive that has already appeared elsewhere (or that the journalist knows has been unsuccessfully hawked around competitors)
  • broken promises about returned calls, especially when a journalist needs someone to interview for a current story
  • showing no understanding of the program, website or publication that the journalist works for
  • requests for a clip of a story when it appears
  • phoning to follow up too often and at the wrong time (eg on deadline).

Many of these complaints are not new, and are the same ones journalists were making a decade and more ago. While there are some new complaints brought about by the growth of social media, basically it would appear that many public relations people – and their clients – haven’t learned much about media relations over many years.

Perhaps it is because many do not practice “media relations” but instead rely on occasional “media contact”. Yet it is only by developing relationships with journalists that practitioners can learn what to do that best helps the people they represent.

Just about every journalist we have ever known is annoyed by the phone call that enquires whether a release has been received ­– particularly as the call is too frequently made by a junior practitioner, with little or no experience, who has been let loose on journalist follow-up. Yet it evidently happens all the time.

If there is a high level of probability that such calls will annoy journalists, even turning them against the release, why does it happen? Is it ignorance, or do public relations people think they know best?

It all comes back to relationships versus contact. I suspect many public relations people don’t know the journalist they are trying to deal with – a suspicion borne out by what journalists themselves tell us.

Another indication of this is that journalists complain they often get releases on subjects they have no interest in or, if they did once, moved on to a new role years ago.

“Media relations” would have reduced the chance of this happening. Ad hoc “media contact” simply doesn’t work. Personal relations, built over time; an understanding of journalists’ needs; and knowledge of the industry, have more chance of success. Anyone who deals with journalists should understand that they aren’t “best friends forever” just because they used information from one meeting or media release in a story.