PRs need help

PR people need help. They appear to have less understanding of how journalists work than ever before. They don’t appreciate deadlines, the speed journalists work at and the hours journalists now work on 24-hour internet media.

I have had a couple of weeks of dire experience with PRs. These include:

Slow, non-answers | Embargos | Contacts | Press registration

Slow, non-answers

Prompt payment website featuring Lord MandelsonThe latest to hit me was the government’s Business Information and Skills (BIS) department. I asked PR man Michael Gibbs about what the government now calls “prompt payment” (in reality it is still late payment) at the beginning of March. I was asked to email specific questions over.

I emailed these on 4 March. I was immediately told they would not be able to answer them until the following Tuesday. But they did not even reply then. A whole week later on Thursday 12 March I chased up. There may be a prompt payment code, but there are no prompt answers.

The PR then called to check my angle. Late yesterday he emailed a two paragraph anodyne statement that failed to answer any of my questions. It could have been lifted out of any previously published marketing drivel.

My questions were:

  • My understanding of the law is that standard terms are 30 days and the set fees and interest penalties then apply.
  • Companies may “agree” (for that read impose) longer credit periods with their suppliers but the penalties for late payment in those contracts must be more severe than the standard penalties. Is this correct?
  • Can you give example of acceptable penalties for 45 days and 90-days?
  • Have the courts struck down contracts for having unacceptable compensation terms?
  • Is it OK to have 45 days or 90 days terms but no mention of any late payment fees?
  • To sign up to the prompt payment code, is it possible for a customer simply to extend their payment terms to meet their current payment times?
  • Is the code supposed to speed up payment?
  • Does the government believe faster payment is a good thing?
  • Is there any evidence that the late payment legislation has speeded up payments across the UK economy?
  • It is perfectly legal and acceptable for a customer who pays late to cease using any supplier that claims their late payment entitlement? Does the government endorse that behaviour?
  • Are there any plans to tighten late payment legislation?
  • Does the government feel businesses should move to the 10-day example it has set itself?

The answer Gibbs sent was:

A spokesperson for the Department for Business said:

“The Government takes seriously the long-standing culture of late payment across the UK economy. That is why we developed the Prompt Payment Code through which signatories commit to paying their bills within agreed terms. There are now 828 signatories to the Code.

“The Code differs from the earlier industry-led Better Payment Practice Campaign in two important respects; companies wishing to sign up must be supported by their suppliers and the Government has targeted large companies as a priority for membership. Current Code signatories have an annual combined turnover of £750bn and represent around 60% of the UK supply chain.”

Does anybody think that answers my questions? I have gone back to Gibbs again.

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On Thursday morning soon after I start my 6am Insurance Times work, I see the BBC website is running a release from the Association of British Insurers (ABI). The release is not on the ABI website nor on the finance journalists’ press release resource Headline Money.

The ABI does this sort of thing all the time. They give a press release to one news organisation – often the FT – without making it widely available until after 9am the next day. I then have to chase them up. Some ABI PR’s do not answer their phones early and call back mid-morning, far too late.

I texted long-standing and reliable PR Malcolm Tarling at 6.20am. He replied instantly, saying he’d get me the release. Unbeknown to me he had to go to the office to send it (why not have it on a laptop?)

Weapon of mass destruction?

Some 45 minutes later (Saddam Hussain could have bombed western civilisation in that time) I emailed, frustrated: “I need it urgently Malcolm. In fact I needed it ages ago. Why can I not be sent it the night before like all the other news services?” I also texted again.

Tarling rang up angry that I was abusing him and being rude. The release, he explained, had been given to broadcasters in advance and to no other print journalists. I would be the first print journalist to get it. But the BBC had it on its website and I was writing for two websites, not print.

After I finished my work that morning, writing the story for both Insurance Times and AOL (written differently), I emailed an explanation of how I work and why I need releases early.

I also pointed to the fact that, in a previous blog on AXA’s embargos, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations has said separate embargos for different media was bad PR practice.

Tarling has promised me all embargoed releases as they are sent out in future.

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Finding PR contacts can be a real pain, with many websites hiding them away from journalists.

Having struggled with Virgin Mobile this week, after I’d got the info I needed (all the mobile phone companies took at least two days to answer basic questions sent on Wednesday – some have still not replied), I let PR Alison Gramm know that her telephone and email address were wrong.

She replied:

“My email address has just changed to this one, but my telephone number is correct on the website:

User friendly URL

I pointed out that a Google search found the much more likely URL

Virgin Mobile - About Us - Media Contacts Contacts: Simon Dornan - Head of Consumer PR Mobile: +44 (0) 7847 279666 ... holding company of ntl:Telewest) completed its acquisition of Virgin Mobile. ... › Home › About Us › Media Centre - Cached - Similar Virgin Mobile - About Us - Media Centre ... or email If you would like to be notified when a press release is added ... Virgin Mobile - About Us - Virgin Mobile and offer free ... Media Contacts · Register for Updates · Corporate Social Investment ...

Her reply to that staggered me: “Unfortunately there is no way for us to stop this from happening, as this press office site was run for us by an external company, who we do not work with anymore. However, on our own site, my number is correct.”

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Press registration

I have a new contract to write news for bikers on the forum. I have been registering to receive releases from the various bike manufacturers. Many insist journalists register online and take 24-48 hours to approve your application. That annoys me anyway.

The Yamaha website even states that it will only work if you use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer on a PC or Safari on a Mac. Who did they get to design that? And even when you do get inside, there are no press contact details.

Several PR sites now insist on prior registration to be able to access, for example, photos. Out of hours, when I need a shot to accompany an online story, I know registering is a wasted effort as there will be nobody there to approve my application. It is silly PR practice.

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3 Responses to PRs need help

  1. Sue says:

    We don’t reply because we are bombarded with useless press releases every day from rude and arrogant PRs who expect free advertising. “Targeted” releases come in their hundreds and most are poorly researched and totally off base. If I answered all of the ‘targeted’ releases that I get every day, I wouldn’t have time to do my job.
    I am always polite and warm during business communications because I like to forge good relationships and I’m very social. But most PRs can barely conceal their contempt for journalists. In my 25 year career I’ve found just a handful of PR people that I am happy to do business with and I will always answer their releases, talk on the phone with them and their products and services ALWAYS get priority and they get loads of free national advertising.
    I don’t NEED PRs and I don’t have to include any products and services in the publication I work for. It is my choice and whether I do or not is based on two things: whether I think the product will benefit our readers and whether the PR is a nice genuine person.
    The PRs that do their jobs properly and get publicity for their clients (which is what they’re being paid for!) are nice people and they expect nothing and get everything.
    PRs remember your job is PUBLIC RELATIONS. Rudeness and lack of respect and open contempt is unprofessional.

  2. DC says:

    I have no doubt it was the journalist not the PR being rude. Journalists think that, because a PR is selling something, they have a right to treat them however they wish, which is often with the lowest form of civility. Common politeness and manners, which come at no extra effort, go out the window. Journalists think PRs are disposable. In fact 70% of news stories come from press releases and building good relationships with a PR will often lead to flexible embargoes and exclusives.

    I suggest, if you’re not interested in the story, tell them so in a polite way before putting the phone down; a young PR with more than one brain cell will remember exactly who you are 30 years from now when they’re on the way up in the Bank of England press office and you’re struggling for stories in a backwater paper.

    Most PRs are doing their job in the best way possible to pay their bills, and are contributing to the economy as well as to the national news agenda. They put a lot of time and effort into finding journalists new stories, and all they ask in return is an email address to send it to and a 5 second phone call. Politeness costs nothing – treat them with respect.

  3. owen says:

    What a load of nonsense. Let’s deal with this one step at a time…

    Slow, non-answers: Having worked for government clients before, I’d wager good money that the response was the client’s idea and not the PRs. PRs do not have a personal vendetta against journalists, there isn’t an inherent desire to withhold information. I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’ve requested a client provide a straight answer only to be given the kind of nonsense you got – sometimes for genuine sensitive political reasons and sometimes for no good reason at all. Either way, not much a PR can do about it, any more than you could tell and editor who asked you to change a story to go poke it and still be in a job.

    Embargos: The FT is a law unto itself. It is the most influential financial media and demands to be treated a certain way. It’s a circle, because it holds a dominant position it demands exclusives and early news, and because it gets its way it keeps that dominant position. The ABI will need to maintain the status quo and, whilst I’m sure they’d like to keep you happy too, if it’s a choice between the FT and The Insurance Times, looks like they’ve made their call. I know nothing about insurance media so can’t comment if this is a particularly good move or not. If IT is more important to the audience than FT, they’ve got it wrong.

    Contacts: How on earth is a poorly designed website anything to do with the PR? Honestly, do you think people want incorrect details posted? It’s an IT issue and in a huge organisation like Virgin Media, can you not see how difficult it would be for a PR to do much about it?

    Press registration: As a member of the press you are privy to information not available to others. If this were not the case, any idiot could become a member and it would cheapen the standard of journalism. In some instances, this means having to register, so that companies can make sure they’re only dealing with bona fide members of the press. Not a fan myself but can see why it needs to be done in some instances. The problem has been made worse by bloggers as there are great ones that are not members of the press and others that are completely irresponsible and need to be frozen out. That’s nothing to do with them towing a line, it’s to do with factual accuracy and fairness.

    So, whilst I believe that there are a lot of crap PRs out there, this article has done nothing to add to the argument. In fact, it’s downright lazy. Slagging off PRs is easy and because there are so many PRs and journalists it inevitably gets lots of people talking and raises the writer’s profile. It’s a cheap trick and hopefully people will see it as such.

    So before you start throwing your arms up in the air at the shocking state of PR, try thinking how much of the situation is the PRs fault. Just because you can’t get what you want, doesn’t mean you have to take it out on the easiest target.

    Remember journalists are not all whiter than white, and this kind of article just puts you in the same group as bad PRs. Don’t bring yourself to that level.

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