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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Embargos

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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Contacts

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:

http://pressoffice.virginmedia.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=205406&p=irol-contact

User friendly URL

I pointed out that a Google search found the much more likely URL http://about.virginmobile.com/aboutus/media/contacts/

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. ... about.virginmobile.com › 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 ... about.virginmobile.com/aboutus/media/ Virgin Mobile - About Us - Virgin Mobile and Virgin.net offer free ... Media Contacts · Register for Updates · Corporate Social Investment ... about.virginmobile.com/aboutus/media/news/2006/2006-08-18/

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 xrv.org.uk 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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