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This article was published on May 4, 2017

Dear tech journalists, PRs are sick of your shit

Dear tech journalists, PRs are sick of your shit
Matthew Hughes
Story by

Matthew Hughes

Former TNW Reporter

Matthew Hughes is a journalist from Liverpool, England. His interests include security, startups, food, and storytelling. Follow him on Twi Matthew Hughes is a journalist from Liverpool, England. His interests include security, startups, food, and storytelling. Follow him on Twitter.

Tech reporters aren’t particularly known for their athletic prowess, but I think that if we had a favorite sport, it’d be ragging on PRs. Follow some on Twitter, and your feed will be filled with the latest #PRFail.

But guess what, fellow hacks? We aren’t infallible.

In fact, last month I sent out a mass-email to everyone who has ever pitched me, asking them to vent about how goddamn awful we are, and to tell the stories of journalists who had wronged them. They didn’t hold back. My email was their confessional booth, and I was their Father Confessor.

Is there anybody out there?

I spoke to roughly twenty people working in the PR industry for this article. Those that responded tended to work for smaller, boutique agencies in the consumer technology space, rather than large agencies. I spoke to a mix of low-level workers, people working in management positions, and those running their own companies.

Communication between PRs and journalists is often fraught. A common point of contention was the fact that journalists often fail to answer to PRs emails.

As someone who gets over 200 emails per day, I can kinda see why. It’s not tenable to give a personal response to every single one — it’s why I’ve taken to using canned responses with TextExpander. But most PRs don’t actually want a personalized response. They just want a yes or no, either way.

Jodi Echakowitz, of Boulevard PR in Toronto, said:

Those of us that actually take the time to do the necessary research and ensure our pitch is relevant, timely, and on target deserve at least the courtesy of a brief response. While we realize some journalists can get hundreds of pitches in a day, a quick reply of “yes I’m interested, tell me more…” or “no thanks” is all we need so that we don’t become incessant nags.

Of course, the converse of this is when a pitch is way off base because a PR person hasn’t done the necessary ground work before sending it out. In that situation, I don’t blame the journalist for not responding; although perhaps a response of “your pitch is way off base and not a fit for me” might be a good reminder for the PR person to do their homework before pitching a journalist.

Sometimes, PRs will offer journalists an exclusive — the chance to cover a story before any other publication. This is always a risk, as Morey Altman of Ranky in Tel Aviv explained:

We’re basically in limbo until we hear back since we can’t offer it to anyone else until we do. An Exclusive pitch can cost us a week (pitch email and follow-up 2-3 days later) which is an eternity in outreach time. Honestly, if all I get is an email that says “Thanks. Pass” I’m grateful.

Several of the individuals I spoke to made note of how journalists hate follow-up emails. And yet, if we replied to the first email they sent, there wouldn’t be a need for a follow-up.

You’re hot and you’re cold, you’re yes then you’re no

One complaint that came up frequently was that reporters would agree to write a story, and then disappear into the ether, leaving the PRs to fend with their angry clients. One agency owner, who asked to be anonymous, said:

When a reporter says they’ll do a thing and they don’t does grind my gears but ultimately, they don’t work for me so what am I gonna do about it?

I try and prep clients that basically anything that hasn’t run yet isn’t 100% for sure, and I can only go off the word of someone who is A.) a human being and B) literally has a job that can change by the minute to cover something different, which may make the thing they were covering irrelevant now.

Or maybe they don’t have time anymore. Or maybe they wrote it out and hated it. There’s usually a good reason. The only thing I really wish would happen is they’d say categorically why a thing can’t happen anymore, and why. That’s it.

This sentiment was echoed by Corey Herscu, of the Toronto-based boutique agency, RNMKR, who said:

What drives me nuts, absolutely bonkers, is when a journalist says “Yes, I am very interested in your product.” You send it, and they even follow-up with emails about “How amazing it is” and “It has changed their lives”. All of which you lovingly show to your client in an act of “my relationships rock merit”.

Then it happens; they go silent. Like stone-cold silence. You’re nearing launch day and the journalist is nowhere to be found.  Absolute rubbish.

I find this beyond infuriating. Not only have they not had the common courtesy to communicate, but they’ve made it impossible for you — the PR flack — to find someone else to fill that spot. Everyone is busy, but both parties have a job to do and there is no reason why communication lines cannot be always open

Another PR professional, Karen Swim, added:

“You deliver a relevant pitch and it is accepted. You work with the journalist supplying additional experts, media, quotes, all that they need to be successful. You get a planned publication date and it passes without a word. You follow up, nicely and crickets. We understand that stories get bumped but it would be nice to get a confirmation.”

Hello from the other side

Many PR professionals are actually former reporters, attracted to the industry by better pay and more stable work. As a result, they are able to understand the travails hacks have to deal with, and are sympathetic.

They just wish it went the other way, as Sacha Cohen said:

I’ve been on both sides —I was a journalist and an editor for 15 years and then recently switched to PR and marketing. I think the key is respect. Respect for what each side does, respect for accurate information, respect for timeliness and responsiveness.

When I was a writer, I would always respond to publicists who had clearly done their research and knew what I was writing about. These days, it’s rare that I get a response at all (even a “no”) when I pitch a well thought out story idea to writers who may not know me. All I ask is a quick yes or no. It takes two seconds. We’re all busy but no one is too busy to be courteous.

Some just wished that, before we shot off an acerbic little tweet, excoriating the PR for whatever mistake they’d made, or for the product they pitched, the journalist understood what the PR was going through. Cathy White of CEW Communications in London said:

Don’t shoot the messenger! Among the many frustrations I’ve had over the years with journalists, one of the biggest has got to be lack of empathy. Yes, PR’s can be irritating, but for every irritating thing we’ve ever done, there is likely an equally irritating client pushing us to the edge. And remember, depending on where we work, we don’t always have the luxury of picking our clients!  My view has always been to side with the journalist as our relationships with you are far more important than any with a client, but quite often – especially with young companies with ridiculously high expectations and no experience of dealing with the press – our ways of working with the press are tested.

Some of us are dicks

Yep, I don’t have a funny song pun for this section. One of the most disheartening things I learned from speaking to PR professionals is that some journalists can be rude, abusive, mean assholes. It’s almost like we’re all drunk on a noxious cocktail of power and an inflated sense of self-importance.

Sometimes, it goes beyond a Twitter public shaming, as one PR worker who asked to remain anonymous told me:

Last year I was pitching out survey results conducted by an enterprise tech client of mine. The pitch essentially said, “Next week, will be releasing survey results on X, Y, Z. This survey was conducted as a follow up to this survey: [LINK TO OLD SURVEY]”

Then I shared some key findings from the new survey and asked if the reporter would like to see full results under embargo.

Well the reporter got back to me a day later with a full article written on the old survey, asking if there were any factual errors. I responded politely and said, “apologies for any confusion, but this data is from a survey released a few months ago. If you’d like to see the full results of our new survey coming out next week, I’d be happy to share under embargo.”

Twenty minutes later I get a phone call on my desk phone, and I answer to a reporter screaming at me about how he wasted all this time and I should have been more clear and basically calling me an idiot. I was so caught off guard I hardly knew what to say, but I said I was sorry he was so frustrated and tried to calmly inform him that all of this was explained explicitly in my original pitch. He yelled some more and then hung up on me.

Five minutes later I get another phone call from the reporter who said he reread the email and realized that I did clearly say the link was to old survey results and I would share the new results if he’d agreed to an embargo. I said I appreciated his apology and I understood how busy he must be and how valuable his time is, to which he began yelling again about how PR people don’t understand how busy he is and how valuable his time is and he doesn’t have time to read emails thoroughly. (Yet he has time to call me twice and yell at me on the phone?)

Needless to say, it was a pretty unpleasant experience. I do understand where his frustration was coming from, I just think it could have been handled better.

The initial relationship between journalist and PR was intended to be symbiotic, and I think we could all stand to be reminded of that sometimes. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to be polite to each other along the way! We are all just trying to do our jobs as best we can

Technology PR is an industry heavily dominated by women, while technology journalism is heavily dominated by men. As a result, it wasn’t uncommon to hear shocking tales of sexism. One PR worker, who also asked to be anonymous, told me about how one reporter turned into a raging jerk (her words) after she replaced a male employee.

There’s another local TV reporter who I’ll only pitch rarely these days because he pretty much cut us off after our male outreach coordinator left. When we had a guy pitching him (under my direction), he was friendly and grateful and we had a good, productive relationship. When that guy left the team and it was up to me, a woman, to do the pitching, he mostly stopped responding. Or when he did, the tone was really cold and dismissive. The only difference in the pitches was the fact that they were now being sent by a woman. So you know what happens to juicy stories I think he’d like now? I give them to journalists who don’t reek of sexism.

We can all be better

A couple of weeks ago, the hallowed pages of this publication were used for a bare-knuckle brawl between two of the best PRs in the game, Ed Zitron of EZPR and Ayelet Noff of Blonde 2.0. The argument was over whether PR was fundamentally broken, or if the issue laid at the feet of individual PR workers. As Bryan Clark pointed out, there are merits to both arguments.

But there’s been a deafening lack of soul-searching from tech journalists about how their side of the fence could improve when it comes to their relationships with PRs.

There’s a staggering lack of empathy and understanding towards people working in the PR industry, and that’s a damn shame, because at the end of the day, they’re all just like us – people doing a job. It’s worth remembering that.

I’m still interested in hearing horror stories from the trenches of PR. If you have one to share, please shoot me an email and let me know.

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