As someone who sits on both sides of the fence between journalist and PR professional I can join in Ted's feelings about the whole PR process. But where Ted goes off only at the PR industry as someone who has to be in the middle of the mess, I have to admit it cuts both ways.
As I see it, the whole way setting up briefings at conferences doesn’t work. I proposed a solution to Martin Geddes this week when we met in Paris. He’s overloaded on requests like I am and my solution, which he liked, is really simple and it eases all of our pains. So if you’re a conference organizer who wants to get more out of the opportunities that exist to not get reporters, analysts and your exhibitors contentious with one another let me know. It’s too easy of a solution and it will stop the Ted’s and Andy’s of the world from telling you, “it is broke, so go fix it.”
Now back to Ted who I am fully supportive of because he’s right so let me take a few moments based on 32 years of experience in this business to shed some light.
Before the email era most editors and reporters used to field phone calls, tell you what they are working on, give you a sense of what might be a good story for them, give you the opportunity to talk through angles with them.
Some editors or reporters would even let you take them out for coffee, lunch or gosh, dinner. They would let you build a relationship because they wanted to develop sources. Unfortunately we now live in an era where the journalists are way overloaded, don't answer their phone or reply to queries. The by-product of this is they don't have enough time to develop sources like in the old days. Those that still do end up break stories. A polite, not, I’m not interested to a query, or a question back to help frame out the next approach will be helpful. But rarely does that ever happen. Most just ignore a majority of the PR professionals.
The good news is there are a few great reporters in our sector who regularly check in with me to ask for pointers or referrals. They are also the ones who tell you yes or no, and even sometimes suggest a colleague who the story is better for. To me they are the real pros in the business. On those queries I sometimes refer them to a client, sometimes to people I know in the industry or sometimes I just give them the background as I know it, and it ends up in the story, without any attribution to me, which is fine. The story ends up in print and the information is accurate. Everyone is happy.
So with all that as subtext, let me share some examples from both sides that may further support Ted's post:
One reporter has the audacity to tell me that they have already enough information about one client because they were briefed before. Funny, neither client spokesperson has ever spoken to the reporter.
Other reporters leave an outgoing message on their voice mail saying, “don't leave a message if you are following up on a pitch you sent by email.” Funny, there is no reply to the emails, nor any ability to talk to the reporter about what they are looking for. I guess we are supposed to be clairvoyant about topics on the editorial calendar, how frequently they will be covering a sector and what may make a good story work for them it has to be a two way street.
This ESP goes hand in hand with knowing what stories a reporter is working on that clients seem to think we have. Hence we don’t know. They don’t know and the reporters don’t know what we know because they don’t take time to talk to us or our clients, so they end up writing the same thing about the same companies over and over again leaving something or someone out of the story.
(And you wonder why bloggers are becoming so important!)
The published editorial calendar is not really helpful if you don’t tell us who is working on the story. Those of us who use them to direct stories to the proper reporter tend to ask the editor for advice. Not finding out who is working on the story means a lot of blind alleys and wasted time. If the would advise us, PR pros stop being labeled ankle biters.
As a rule I tend to take every pitch request and evaluate it. Most are like Ted describes. Some are outright worthwhile but many though are not. I send back a polite, no and explain it’s not something I’m interested in.
What I find funny is when you provide a “yes I’ll do the briefing” what happens next. I offer some times that are convenient (i.e. not during the hours the show floor is open, not when I’m on a panel, not when I’m attending panels and most of all not when I’m in other briefings. That’s where it becomes a game that makes me sorry sometimes that I said yes.
Yesterday a very reputable firm, representing a very well known company asked for a briefing. I said sure, how about 330 PM on Friday at VON following the blogger panel that runs until about 3 PM. Today I received an email telling me the time won’t work because the show ends at 2?
Huh???? The trade show ends at 2 PM, but the conference runs almost until 6 PM. My panel isn’t over until close to 3 and sorry, but I like to run panels professionally and don’t want any distractions before the panel on the day of.
As a rule I almost never do a briefing on the show floor. I may meet an executive there but we quickly shuttle off to a meeting room. The distraction on the show floor is just too great. Besides, the press room or the speakers lounge lets me ask questions sitting down, not standing up.
Booth briefings are usually just canned demos, the noise at VON is at a fever pitch because the crowds are so big and what’s more I usually find that either the person giving the demo or I has someone come up to one of us just to say hello. Show floor briefings also means a loss of time to do briefings. Most last 20-30 minutes. I can gang a series in the press room and never leave, and oh, yes access the Internet too while being briefed so I can look up things not in the briefing that may be relevant.
Lastly, show floor briefings lack intimacy and candor. They’re great for follow-ups to what you’ve told us, but not an opening salvo…besides, if I don’t like what you’ve told me, do you think I want to watch it too?
Another company, which I’m fond of had their agency approach me. Two weeks later we will still waiting for a confirmed time. I finally emailed the CEO and set up the meeting. It took all of one email, while the agency played back and forth with the company’s internal staff that was juggling things. Rule number two, don’t have your agency offer briefings if the person won’t be available when you get the yes.
Rule number three—see if I wrote about the company. Chances are if I did I’m more likely to take a briefing just to get updated. If you represent a new company, in an already crowded space (Session Border Controllers, Testing and Measurement, Media Servers and Gateways, etc.) you’re wasting my time and your own. I don’t care about that stuff as a blogger or broadcaster, nor do most of the press attending VON. Those that do are easy to find and you’r better focusing on them. If you really have something new or competitive with someone I’ve covered tell me how it’s competitive in the approach.
Rule number four—and this relates to Ted’s comment about tell us what you want to tell us—If we ask a question to your spokesperson and they pull the “we can’t talk about that because of an NDA or a contractual clause” then know I know and just admit it and share perspective. One reason a few companies are getting less and less space in the blog is the constantly pull the “we can’t answer that” game in briefings and on direct questioning.
Rule number five—no PowerPoints or decks in the briefing unless you sent them out in advance. We send decks in advance to reporters and analyst who are unfamiliar with clients or the sector, sometimes automatically, sometimes on request. When I meet on the other side of the table I’d like to appear smart, not be a smarta**, so advancing materials always helps. Oh yes, I honor the embargoes, thank you very much. But don't send the decks unless we're meeting please.
Rule number six—Offer Group Briefings if time is tight. I have no problem sitting in a group briefing with some peers. Martin Geddes, Stuart Henshall, probably Ted Shelton too and a few others of us have a good deal of respect for one another would not object to meeting with some of the same people at the same time at conferences. But no one ever offers that because filling up the calendar is part of dialing for dollars. A one on one can always be set up after that. The same would likely apply to analysts in the same firms. Sure they are competitive, but at the end of the day, only one will be covering, while the others will be using the same set of data.
I could go on and on, but suffice to say, Ted’s frustration is a problem I share on multiple fronts and would love to implement a real solution that I have for all. It’s just to plain easy.