There we were, sitting in the top floor bar taking in the last of the evening sun and the spectacular views of the Bund with the Pudong area of Shanghai lit up like a Christmas tree behind it. The cocktails flowed and cigar smoke – still allowed in most bars in China – swirled. Behind the Montechristo haze sat reporters from the Daily Mail and the Huffington Post. Left and right were journalists from the UK’s finest technical titles. All reporters were on good form and on their first visits to China.
After an exchange of views on everything from the impending Scottish Referendum to the problems facing UK supermarket chain Tesco, as well as what might best be described as ‘Fleet Street gossip’, the discussion turned, predictably, to PR agencies. A cringe-making list of crimes against common sense followed, each reporter offering an example to outbid the previous. I have had similar evenings on a regular basis for the last 20 years. I tried, half-heartedly, to introduce a little balance into the assassination of the industry I consider home.
A few days later and back in the office, I received an email, unsolicited, from a managing director at a UK PR agency. The agency, his email went on, had ‘an unrivalled reputation’ in the mobile technology industry and, lucky for someone, was in a position to add some new clients to the agency’s portfolio. He asked that I offer some times when the head of his telecommunications practice could call me to discuss my needs.
I responded by thanking him for his interest in adding us to his portfolio of clients and assured him of my excitement with any agency with an ‘unrivalled reputation’. But then I reminded him that he had written to me, again unsolicited, just a few weeks earlier (when incidentally the agency had an unrivalled reputation in broadcast technology) and that I had responded then saying I was fully covered with existing agency relationships, a position that hadn’t changed in the intervening period.
In the interest of full disclosure, I may have challenged (a little) his assertion of his agency’s ‘unrivalled reputation’ as I had never heard of them before but I did wish him well in his new business quest. I might, to be honest, have also offered him a modicum of advice, explaining that in-house people are, somewhat self-interestedly, more curious about what the agency can do for them than how they might be able to help an unknown agency.
His response was a slightly terse note to the effect that “a simple ‘no thanks’ would have sufficed”. I then reminded him that I had done that just a few weeks earlier, yet he had chosen to interrupt me, unnecessarily, again and that maybe I was just too busy to play his email marketing game.
The exchange reminded me of many similar approaches over the years but one in particular still stands out. Almost 15 years ago, I had just finished a particularly long day at the office. The company had just issued the mother and father of all profits warnings, introduced a new Chairman and CEO and announced a plan for what was then Europe’s largest ‘debt-for-equity swap’ as the basis of a £multi-billion financial restructuring. By 6:30pm, and having completed 120 media interviews including with TV crews camped outside the company’s headquarters in central London, I was about to leave for home for the first time in 72 hours (these events take a little preparation!) when the phone rang. I assumed it was a final fact check call from one of the news desks on the nationals so reluctantly picked up the receiver.
The caller, who judging by the tone of his voice had enjoyed a better day than I, explained that in his opinion we’d had a bad day with the media and was calling to offer the services of his PR agency to restore balance. So I asked him to define what our challenges were.
“Eh, er, erm, you’re putting me on the spot now. Can I, er, erm, come back to you in a few days?”
I don’t believe for a second that either example is typical PR agency behaviour but it does happen too often and has been going on for too long. It’s not just journalists that have to suffer time wasting calls from PR types.
The basic skill that any PR needs is the ability to craft a message that meets the needs of the recipient and the ability to deliver it to them at a good time. Anything else is simply an unwelcome interruption to someone’s busy day at best, or the subject of a game of journalist’s anti-PR one-upmanship in a bar somewhere at some time later.
Please, please, please. If you do it, stop it. If you see someone else doing it, tell them to stop.
In the end, we all get tarred with the same ugly brush.