11 May 2013

The PRoblem with PR

Back when I first started to be a journalist, I entered with no preconceived notions in my head. To me, everyone was equal--from sub editors to reporters to page designers--and obviously the editor in chief was the head of it all, but the rest of us were all monkeys with typewriters. Before I joined my first job, I was given a little aptitude test (do they still do that?) where they make you fill out lots of pages about who you are and what you read and then line edit a story for mistakes and then you do a little essay about some random topic. Mine was "My Autobiography" and perhaps not surprising for someone who has basically been writing their memoirs online for like, OH TEN YEARS, I filled up some twenty pages. I have a lot to say about myself. It's a problem.

Anyway, so maybe if I hadn't been such a little enthu cutlet, the fate of my career path would have been completely different. They took one look at it--and my ill-informed views on the news page of
Always a boxing match
the form I had to fill out--and shunted me straight into features or lifestyle reporting, where, now, a decade later, I still lurk, lurkingly. Being in lifestyle reporting is mostly just you and your colleagues thinking things like a trend story on fabrics are far more important issues than they actually are, but on the other hand, they are also the pages that are read the most. One other distinguishing thing about the lifestyle reporter is that you work very closely with PR people, far more closely than your bretheren in crime or sports, because the PR represents the people you want to talk to for your story.


That was 10 years ago. PR and journalism lived in a happy ecosystem where you understood that both kind of needed each other, but you also respected that the other person had to do their job.

I did a story for a popular longform magazine on Kingdom Of Dreams in Gurgaon.  (ETA: This post originally had a link to the story, but I wanted to make clear here that I operate on my own, and the voice here is also all me, all the time, no organisation, plus I don't want to get anyone into trouble. However, if you Google my name + Kingdom of Dreams, the story will pop up, if you're interested.) It began as just a "what IS the Kingdom of Dreams?" story and then as I was doing my research, I began to see a lot of news stories online about their financials, which I thought made an interesting path for the story to take. With the help of the editor, I wrote what can be summed up as: kitschy and OTT, who is the Kingdom Of Dreams' audience and are they actually losing money? We had to speak to the PR person in order to get some quotes from the director and for the photographer to take pictures. I even sent them a list of questions I was planning to ask--including about their financials--and they patched me through to the director. He declined to comment on the rent issue, I put that into the story and then sent it off and since this was three or four months ago, promptly forgot all about it till yesterday. Somewhere in this long copy, I also mentioned that Kingdom of Dreams came to my attention rather frequently because of the "bombardment of press releases" they sent.

My phone rang and in my ear, a cross female voice, "You made a typo in the director's name!" she said. "Oh sorry," said I, "But you need to get in touch with the editor as I can't do a retraction, I don't work there." I made to hang up but then she went on: "LISTEN, PR PEOPLE ARE ONLY DOING THEIR JOB, YOU CAN'T SAY THEY "BOMBARD" YOU WITH PRESS RELEASES." I was getting cross now, and told her she couldn't pick on my language choices. "YES BUT YOU CAN'T USE THE WORD BOMBARD!" "Well, then maybe I should stop getting press releases from you every five minutes," I snapped back. "We'll remove you from our mailing list," she said and I said, "FINE" and I thought that was the end of that.

Until, new rant: "YOU CAN'T QUOTE OLD NEWS REPORTS IN A LIFESTYLE MAGAZINE, YOU HAVE NO BUSINESS QUOTING NEWS REPORTS." I told her quite shortly that it wasn't up to her to define what [REDACTED] was (for the record: one of the finest long form magazines in the country with excellent writing) and then she slammed the phone down.

All this PR has done is now alienate a member of the media to such an extent that not only will I not be writing about them in the future, I will actively encourage my friends not to go there. Which may seem like not much, considering I'm only little ol' me, someone she thought insignificant enough to shout at on the phone, but hey, every little thing counts. Which is why business-savvy brands like Flipkart and even Airtel respond to you instantly when you tweet with a complaint. The power is with the social media masses. Which doesn't seem like a great way to do your job, if your job--as I understand it--is to be a liasion between your client and the press.

What I can't understand is when this became okay--to call a journalist and yell at them if you don't like something. Dude, as long as your thing is in the public space, I am free to yell from the rooftops that I hate it. Another PR called to tell me I couldn't "write a bad review" about her client's place. I told her I went anonymously and paid for my meal, but she was mid-rant and also hung up. This is despicable, rude behaviour, and completely unprofessional.  If I were lying--for example, if I were saying that the owners were murderers or whatever--then it becomes a legal grey area, slander or something, but you cannot by any stretch, ask a journalist to remove/change a story when the facts are true.

It's not just the PR--although they are the worst culprits--there was this guy I interviewed back in January who has some tailoring service or something. Cute little story, I spoke to him for like half an hour with interview questions, he answered and I wrote it up. Nothing fudged, nothing bad--just straight up "this is what happened". He harangued me for days after that asking me to take it down because "he didn't know I was going to publish it". Yes, I normally call people at 9.30 pm and ask them a list of detailed questions about their job because I want to chat. Finally, fed up of his shouting, I took it down, and honestly, I will never write about it again (not even here to bitch about him, because that brand no longer gets even a teeny tiny bit of publicity from me.)

Marketing and Public Relations people! THIS. IS. NOT. OKAY.  You are not only NOT doing your job, you're doing the OPPOSITE of your job. This is not public "relations", it's public "break ups".  Also, pissed off or not, it's extremely rude to shout at anyone, even if you perceive them to be lower on the food chain than yourselves.

What are other very un-media-savvy brands? Have you had a crap experience? Add your thoughts in the comments, it would be nice to see it's not just me getting the short end of the stick!



6 comments:

  1. I once had a journalist scream at me in front of the entire staff..in her office...because the press release I was handing over to her with a smile and polite request had a staple mark on it. This after she made me wait for 1/2 an hour to meet her.
    Another made me pick him up from a far-flung sector of Gurgaon and then flirted with me for the whole one hour drive from Gurgaon to Pragati Maidan.
    Both were/are from reputed media houses. Oh hell! Indian Express and HBL.
    So all I'm saying is...it goes both ways. Bad apples?

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  2. hey Meenakshi, I have quite a bit of experience and spat with some PR people as a journalist. There was this PR firm who invited us to visit the hotel site of their client. Then, one day this girl was constantly nagging me and ask when the article will appear and she wanted it to come on a specific day. I told her that it is us who will decide about it and not her PR firm. She: Oh! I am accountable to my boss
    Me: Listen! I am also accountable to my boss.
    Next time, she called after her press release was duly printed and asked to rectify a mistake that she made in the press release. She wanted a second print of the article. After consulting my boss, told her sorry. Now, I have decided to take a six-months to one-year break from journalism and I am wondering whether it's a gud idea to join PR firm and be exposed to what they do. Any pointer on that?!
    Cheers
    Vishal

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  3. "Dude, as long as your thing is in the public space, I am free to yell from the rooftops that I hate it."

    "Thanks for your feedback! It'll be published once I approve it. Inflammatory/abusive comments will not be posted. Please play nice."

    The irony!

    - Just another anon

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  4. Agree with you! PR people in a space where they can't afford to lose it .. it's their job to be sweet polite and receptive towards all kinds of feedback..a norm very few of them understand.

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  5. The comment above Rajvi's - LOl!

    I know it is none of my business but sometimes you just can't help but react - So I am Gonna!

    Since when did disapproving someone's work and yelling bloody murder (read abusive/inflammatory comments) into their ears become the same?
    I am allowed to not like something and make my opinion on it - provided it is in the public domain - but also,I am oh so definitely not allowed to make personal bitchy comments- about anyone- whether or not it is open for public judgement.

    Judging someone's work is one thing and being out-rightly abusive is totally another.
    So, I don't see no irony.

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  6. Meenakshi may have a point here,as there are some PR professionals who forget where to draw the line. However, as someone who worked for a considerably long time in PR in India, I have come across more than my share of journalists who are unprofessional, manipulative and downright rude!
    Why is it okay for a journalist to call you at 11pm for 'urgent information' for a story he/she needs to file, and not okay for a PR representative to send journalists 2-3 emails to follow up? Since when is it okay for journalists to call the PR person,asking for a discount at a resort ( for a personal trip), demanding to be upgraded to Business class, paying for a few extra days' of stay after your event at a foreign location,using a taxi that we reserved for two hours for the journalist for the entire day instead...I really could go on with this list.

    My point is, do not generalize PR professionals, or journalists for that matter. there is a symbiotic relationship between them and neither can really survive without the other.. especially in the lifestyle and features space.

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Thanks for your feedback! It'll be published once I approve it. Inflammatory/abusive comments will not be posted. Please play nice.