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In Dealing with grumpy editors, Dan Kaufman writes:

I don’t understand why PRs give editors exclusives – because for the most part it does the PR and their client more harm than good.

You see, if a story is newsworthy then it’ll run anyway – and if it isn’t then giving it as an exclusive isn’t going to make much difference.

Kaufman goes on to say if a PR gives an editor a decent story as an exclusive, it will upset other editors. He says piss off, but this is a family website.

This happens all the time here in New Zealand. The practice is counter-productive.

It can certainly destroy trust a PR person or company has built.

Exclusive… oh yeah?

Waking-up, reading a so-called exclusive story then later in the day getting a press release covering the same ground happens often in New Zealand.

Often this happens when a public relations person thinks they might get sympathetic or splashy coverage of their story if they play favourites.

PRs have approached me offering to trade an exclusive for a favourable position: often the cover of a print title. They may even ask to vet the copy in return for the story. This, in effect, can mean an editor enters into a conspiracy to mislead readers.

Often stories ‘leaked’ this way are rubbish – they read more like advertising than news. Editors giving the press release an early run are manipulated into becoming part of a marketing exercise.

My response to this is to stop trusting the PR person behind the leak. This means they’ll have difficulty slipping any more of their propaganda past me. In extreme cases I’ve ignored any further communication from the source. And I’ve been known to make a formal complaint to the client. In one case I had to tell a PR’s other clients I could no longer work with their agent.

And anyway, if a company thinks it is that important to get their message in a publication they should look at advertising.

Modern public relations people often don’t understand how the media works. They often don’t get journalism.

This wasn’t a problem in the past when most PR people were ex-journalists. Today many publicists have never seen the inside of an editorial office.

Or if they have, they haven’t seen how editors and journalist work. And they know little about what makes them tick.

Harmful PR failures

Many end up harming their client’s chances of getting publicity. They get in the way of journalists and annoy editors.

Which is where Dan Kaufman’s Dealing with grumpy editors gets its name. To public relations people journalists often appear grumpy, rude and obstructive.

This should not surprise anyone. You wouldn’t believe some of the nonsense editors have to put up with from PR people. Some of that nonsense passes for wisdom or craft in the PR industry.

Rubbish public relations

After 17 years before the editorial masthead Kaufman has seen some rubbish PR. He has also seen some sharp operators. In this book he provides practical advice for communications workers wanting to get an editor’s attention.

If you work in PR, you may not agree with everything Kaufman says. He tells it like it is in straightforward language. It is a valuable work, worth every cent of the ridiculously low $4.99 he is charging for the PDF version.

I can come to your offices – or meet you in a fancy restaurant – and give you the same advice for $150 an hour. So on second thoughts, don’t buy the book. Hire me instead.

Grumpy editors

In the spirit of good journalism, I should disclose my connection with Kaufman. I hired him as a junior journalist some 17 years or so ago. Hopefully he wasn’t thinking of me when he gave his book its title.

Press releases are predictable.

Although original ideas occasionally slip through the net, they generally follow the same pattern:

  • Headline. Should, but often doesn’t, include the most important or newsworthy point.
  • Optional second deck. Another chance to miss making the most important point. It can add facts to the headline.
  • Opening paragraph. A good press release encapsulates the entire story in the first paragraph. Some do. Half the time it will claim the company is a leader or even a world leader in its field.
  • Banal first quote. Almost inevitably the first quote is from the most important person at the company paying for the press release – possibly the person who signs off the public relations invoice. As a rule the first quote is instantly forgettable – most editors will immediately strike a line through it. It will generally be a variation on the theme of “we are so damn clever”, “we worked hard” or “we’re better than everyone else”.
  • Optional, press releases often use the third paragraph to waffle about something of no interest to any sane person.
  • Facts. If you’re lucky, the next few paragraphs will include facts. Don’t hold your breath.
  • Quotes. Next come quotes where people are in danger of saying something worthwhile or interesting – note this is also optional.
  • Partners. The press release then moves on to quotes from people who have important business relations with the company paying for the release. They can be interesting, but I wouldn’t bank on it.
  • Important stuff. If the press release is about a product, there may be price and availability details at this point. On the other hand there may not.
  • Ridiculous big noting. Press releases often end with unrealistically positive paragraphs explaining how the company would like the rest of the world to see it.

Press releases usually trumpet a company as a leader in something. Often they are “global leaders”.

A search for the word “leading” among the press releases in my in-box threw up thousands. Some recent ones:

SYDNEY, Aust., December 10, 2010 —  Acronis, a leading provider of easy-to-use backup, recovery and security solutions for physical, virtual and cloud environments.

Auckland, December 9, 2010: PC Tools, a global leader in innovative performance and protection solutions

About Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd. is a global leader in semiconductor, telecommunication, digital media and digital convergence technologies

Auckland – December 7, 2010 – Kaseya, the leading global provider of automated IT systems management software

SYDNEY, Aust., 1 December, 2010 – Akamai Technologies, Inc. (NASDAQ: AKAM), the leading provider of cloud optimisation services

You’ll notice some claim to be the leader, while others are only a leader. Most claims are highly specific.

They are also unverifiable. None of them tell you who decided they are a leader or what criteria they used.

That’s because the claims are pointless self-aggrandisement. Public relations consultants feel they have little choice but to make these claims – no doubt they feel the client expects or demands it.

But leaving this nonsense in a release doesn’t help anyone.

It doesn’t help the media. Every journalist worth their salt cuts it. Nobody bothers to take seriously any publications not editing these claims.

It doesn’t help the boastful companies. They might argue it would help them show up in Google as a world leader in their area – but does anyone search for “global leader in innovative performance and protection solutions”.

So why do they do it?

For journalists Trevor Young’s  8 Things I’d Do If I Was a Starting Out in PR Today is like the allies getting hold of the German Enigma machine at the start of World War II.

It means knowing what the enemy is thinking and staying one step ahead – at least some of the time.

Young’s road-map is for junior public relations professionals. It should be cut out and pinned beside every agency or in-house desk. It shouldn’t. That’s old school thinking. It should be downloaded and stored on every PR person’s iPad or phone.

He writes:

SIX – I would read every newspaper I could get my hands on, hang out at the newsagent and flick through as many magazines as humanly possible (without getting sprung!); read newsletters, swap radio stations, check out the array of cable TV channels on offer.

Traditional media is not going away any time soon; if you can ‘join the dots’ between traditional and social media, you will become a lot more valuable to your employer!

The advice applies to everyone, but journalists and PR people not reading everything in this way are in the wrong job.

Point nine is learn how to write headlines in newspaper style, grammatically correct and without sticking capital letters on everything.

If only all PR people were as smart as Young, who cleverly brands himself online as the PR Warrior, we could drop the idea of journalists and PR people being at each others’ throats all the time.