Three ways journalists annoy PR professionals

david satterthwaiteIn this response to a Fairfax Media article about three things that annoy journalists David Satterthwaite bemoans the annoying behaviours of journalists in their interactions with PR professionals.

Your computer *pings*. It’s an email from a journalist you contacted days before and you open it eagerly, hoping they’ve read the information you sent and want to write an awesome story about it.

Well, kind of. It was a press release regarding new developments in biomedical science but their response is “OK so is this anything to do with iPads? We’re doing a tech feature on Saturday and I want something to do with iPads and kids.”

Well, I could go back to the world-leading scientist and ask if his five years of research into computational fluid dynamics to aid delivery of life saving medications is somehow related to iPads, and if he could suggest a child- friendly angle, but you know what – I probably won’t.

Instead I politely reply “Unfortunately not, but if you would like I can contact some other researchers and see if they have any work that might be applicable?”

Three hours later the response “Don’t bother deadline was this weekend too late now” comes just after I finish my sixth phone call (and ninth email) in which I drag busy researchers away from curing cancer, saving the bees, preventing climate change and making our roads safer in order to ask them if their work has anything to do with iPads and whether kids might find it interesting.

Actually, like much of the article I am responding to, the above is largely hyperbole – but like the article in question, borne of very valid frustration.

You see, I work in the PR sector. And like journos, I also have suffered immense frustration when dealing with people who allegedly are there to make my job possible – but seem hell bent on the reverse.

However, I am writing this from a perspective of someone who has worked on both sides of the fence – a few decades as a journo and a bit less in PR. I’m also going to leave my tongue somewhat firmly in my cheek as my unique perspective informs me that journos have considerably thinner skin than PR flacks do.

With that in mind, in an effort to help them understand how PR people operate – because many of them have no idea – here are the top three things journalists do that contribute to their poor reputation:

1. When a journalist doesn’t bother to check their facts – or copy

Names, Darling, names, names! Professor, Doctor, Honourable – you and I may not have climbed to such dizzying heights but some folks have, and they get a bit tetchy when you don’t take the time to acknowledge it. Two seconds. Check it.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’m not going to delve into the parlous world of contemporary Australian journalistic writing standards in this 24 hour news cycle world. However, the most minimal effort in checking your copy can mean the difference between seen as a reputable journalist and, say, someone who works for the Daily Telegraph.

More to the point, you’re being paid to be an intermediary who communicates the terrible lies put out by PR people into good honest words that the common people can understand. If you’re to do this properly, spend the time it requires to research your material before you pick up the phone.

You almost certainly have the internet at your fingertips – while no one expects you to instantly go from 0 to 100 on high performance computing, Norwegian social justice issues or 20th Century history, at least know your cloud from your grid, your Oslo from your Copenhagen and for crying out loud, don’t blame the Chinese for Pearl Harbour. AGAIN.

You have more access to information than any journos before you could dream of. Google it!

2. When a journalist uses content out of context for dramatic effect

I understand you’ve got advertising to fight for and it’s those massive clickbait headlines that can decide whether or not you’re in a job next week.

But assuming that you’re not acting out of ignorance (see above) and you’re actively ‘sexing up’ content in order to gain attention, then you’re bringing your profession into disrepute. I’m not talking about Today Tonight ambulance chasing here (Are those guys journalists? Is there an ethical standards test? Certainly not for video games journalism I hear).

But when you take a story and ‘refine’ it to add spin you are directly contributing to the negative perception the public has of journalists. Last time I heard you’re not that far above lawyers.

You do do this. I know you do, and I used to as well.

To be honest, I can’t help you with this one as it’s a massive issue that permeates your entire profession. You’re in a global arms race powered by the fear that if you don’t jazz things up, you will lose out to those that do.

All I can suggest is take a step back. Wind down the drama. Use this one weird trick to be the pebble that starts the rockslide which changes the world.

3. When a journalist assumes they’re god’s gift to the communication industry

You’re not. You’re just acting superior to us because we get paid more than you do.

Seriously though, this is a common attitude and one I was heartily guilty of myself as a journo. It’s baked into the culture that journos are caped crusaders of justice and PR workers are if not actually evil, at least untrustworthy and incompetent.

Well no. Some are, but in no greater percentages than the talentless in your ranks. And many of us used to be you – until our doctors recommended cutting back on the grog and we needed to add an extension to the house for the kids’ bedroom.

I’d argue that instead of focusing on getting angry at PR people, take the wider view.

At the end of the day, we’re pretty much the same people you are. Smart wordsy types, working for people with half our brains and twice our arrogance.

You’re doing your best to hold onto your ethics and skills in a marketplace that values neither and rewards throwing them to the wind – and so are we.

So next time, before issuing a blistering tirade at an ‘incompetent’ PR worker, maybe switch tracks and see if they want to catch up for a drink and talk it over.

You never know, they might offer you a job 😉

  • David Satterthwaite is the marketing and communications manager in the scientific research sector

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