Today’s I’m going to tell you about the kind of public relations person that journalists despair about and subsequently avoid like the plague. Why am I telling you?
To show you how journalists work, how they think, and how a bad communicator causes untold damage to a company’s reputation and significantly reduces their opportunities for future, credible publicity.
This story I’m going to relate is true, it involves an organisation which is real and which is active now – but I won’t name it as I don’t want to put any particular individual in the firing line. Simply because if an organisation is mad enough to appoint poor communicators, then it needs to look at itself rather than at any individual. That individual may simply be representing the view taken by the paymaster. So it’s the paymaster or paymasters who should re-think, in my view.
Preparing to make a short film for a broadcaster, us journalists almost always need case studies. Someone who has experienced the issue that concerns us at any one time. For example, if you are writing about the effects of prostate cancer, you want to interview several people who have it. This is sometimes very easy, some subjects generate loads of people who want to shout about their experiences. Others are far more tricky. How easy is it to get someone to talk openly, on camera about abuse they suffered as a child? Believe me, it’s difficult.
Then there are other subjects where people would think – ‘why is that difficult?’. Poverty is one of them. If you are struggling to pay the bills, are in debt, have lost your job, are overwhelmed by circumstance, it’s very difficult to go on camera to talk about these very personal things. It would involve talking about your income, your expenditure. Details which many of us feel are very personal and private.
So journalists like myself will contact a range of organisations and ask them to approach their members, people they’ve had dealings with or helped, to ask if they’ll take part in any filming. This gives potential interviewees time to consider, and then when they make contact they’ve often already decided they will take part. This is just one tactic we use as journalists to reach people.
Most organisation bend over backwards to help. They know the difficulties of getting case studies but they also know that if they find one, they increase their chance of being interviewed for a film, or at least mentioned. It also gives them a PR opportunity themselves to link their work to a film. So for a little effort, there could be credible, independent publicity.
This particular organisation has a membership based approach. It produced a report which accurately described the kind of circumstances which would work in the film. Having made a telephone call, explained the project to the ‘communications manager’, asked if she could help – this conversation ensued.
She said: ‘The report we did was based on anonymous interviews so we didn’t keep personal details so we cannot contact those people for you. Sorry about that.”
Me: “I understand. Is there any chance, in that case, that you could send out a request by e-mail to your members to see if they would be interested in taking part , or if they know anyone who can help?”
She said: “No, I cannot do that. We only do that for our members, not for any outside body.”
Me: “Oh…right….that seems unfortunate from a communications point of view. Wouldn’t your members want to know about an opportunity to take part in a film?…I find that extraordinary, oh well (goes to end call)”
She said: “Hang on a minute. I’m only telling you that we can’t help and we’re sorry, you don’t have to jump down my throat about it.”
Me: “I’m not jumping down your throat…anyway….thanks for your help. Goodbye.”
On ending the call, all the journalists sitting round me say ‘what was all that about?’. And I tell them.
So what has that communication manager achieved?
In one conversation she’s told five journalists within a news organisation that that body is not open to publicity, is not helpful. So when poverty comes up as an issue again in the coming weeks or months – will that organisation be the first that those journalists approach? No.
If that organisation has done something wonderful and sends out a press release publicising its work – what will those journalists do? Answer – probably nothing. And if it’s a slow news time and they do pick up on it – what do you think the chances are that the negative contact will be explained face-to-face with the individual put up for interview? Probably the boss. Answer, very high.