Guest post: Precious PR hacks and why they do their clients no good

Editor Jason Whittaker has had enough of PRs who try to tell him how to do his job.

My chances of a date with one of the most beautiful women in the world, admittedly slim to start with, have all but evaporated. And I may never be allowed in one particular retail outlet again.  

I’m not surprised, of course. I’ve agitated more people as a journalist than I care to remember. But is it just me, or are you marketing types becoming even more precious of late, if that is even possible?

I recently wrote an innocuous story on the backend operations of a particular retailer that will remain nameless to protect the petty. Naturally, we chose to illustrate the story, in part, with photos of the store’s glamorous spokeswoman (her name we’ll also withhold to protect the vacuous). A beautiful red carpet portrait of said professional model, logos of the store displayed prominently in the background, adorns the cover of this particular national business title. The photos were acquired, under licence, through a professional photo library. Without a mouse-click of airbrushing the pretty clotheshorse looks smashing.

But the retailer is furious. The story reads well, the communications hack admits, but he never allowed photos of their spokeswoman to be used (this was implied, apparently, by not supplying their preferred photos of her). I have put the retailer in a “difficult position” with the model’s management, apparently. The company is now exploring “recourse” against us, and vows to “no longer fulfil any media requests associated with either yourself or the …magazine in the future”.

I can only guess just what the model’s slimy agent has taken offence at. The idea that their client, who prowls catwalks begging photographs to be taken of her, appeared on the cover of a magazine without her knowledge and certainly without payment (plus agent’s commission), no doubt. This after the company demanded to see the copy before publication, made a number of corrections, and then demanded to see another proof of the finished article. To the latter, at least, fat chance.

The behaviour of the communications team at this retail company was fairly hysterical. If the PR hack actually believes any other publication would have accepted a request not to use a photo of the model – when the manager of the business division in question describes his function in the story as “sexy” – they must be one of the more naïve representatives in the industry. But again, none of this comes as much of a surprise.

The remarkable thing about marketing people I’ve found in five years of business journalism is so many of them are amazingly ignorant of just how news media works. And even if they aren’t, they believe their position affords them the right to demand journalists say and do things in the interests of their brands. I find the attitude completely extraordinary.

My job editing business-based titles involves negotiating with these so-called media professionals on a daily basis. Yes you can do a story on us (bless you), but you’ll have to talk to these people, talk to them at this time, and use photographs that we supply. You will have to agree to provide the pre-published copy for approval for us before we agree to do the story, we will most likely make a number of changes to ensure the most positive coverage for our company and expect that each of these will be amended.

I’ve had entire articles re-written, not to reflect any inaccuracies necessarily but just because the PR hack (usually a failed/unemployed/frustrated journo) believes they can write it better. I’ve argued over a single word in two-word headlines. I’ve had a number of companies agree to a story, read the copy and then ‘retract their permission’ to run it (then are genuinely shocked when told the story will run regardless). I’ve had more than one company demand either the printing presses stopped, or tens of thousands of printed magazines pulped, because they are displeased with their article (again, the outrage when this isn’t put into action seems genuine).

The ground rules

For those marketers still unclear on how this works, here are the ground rules: we owe you nothing, save for fair and balanced coverage of your company. Our primary responsibility is to the reader, who would rightly protest any corporate interference in the stories we provide. What we publish is our prerogative alone. You know this, so don’t make demands we simply won’t adhere to.  Capisce?

PR walks a fine line directing a healthy flow of information to market while protecting the corporate profile. It is a job that is not always easy, I understand that. But the marketing world needs to realise how just much damage it can actually do to its brands by building impenetrable walls around them. In practice, there is always another good business case study to write about – we’ll simply go elsewhere. And even if you manage to convince a journalist to publish your unedited spiel, don’t for a moment think anybody is going to read it – the audience is actually smarter than that.

I’m pretty good at what I do. The skill of a journalist is to engage an audience in the subject – surely the best outcome from a marketing perspective for any company, presuming you have nothing to hide. So don’t insult me thinking you know how better to present a story to an audience, and I won’t insult you by giving advice on your marketing efforts. As much as you may clearly need it.

It really is quite simple. You want to write some glowing copy promoting your company? Go for it; happy to run the splash over as many pages as you like and we’ll invoice you for an advertisement. We’ll do you a special rate, even. If you want a story done on your company – one people might actually read – you better learn to trust us. Or this is just never going to work.

Jason Whittaker edits industry-leading national trade titles for a print and online publisher, and blogs on media and policy at importanceofideas.com.


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