Of late there appears to be an increase in tweets by journalists complaining about calls and emails by PR professionals with story pitches that are not relevant to their publication or beats. And while the reporter was not named, the PR firm and client were.
While PR bashing is common, naming PR firms and their clients was unusual. While many PR professionals in WhatsApp groups and on Twitter shared their point of view about naming and shaming; the bigger issue according to them is a lack of training of entry-level PR professionals and therefore a resulting clash with senior journalists.
PRmoment India, therefore decided to speak with both PR professionals and journalists to understand the key issues between them and look at possible solutions.
Issues journalists face with PR professionals
One of the biggest issues journalists face is PR professionals calling them without understanding what the journalist or media organisations' news priorities are. They complain, and rightly so, of mismatched story pitches, emails about stories outside their beats and repeated calls and emails.
Nikhil Pahwa, editor and founder, medianama.com that covers digital policy in India called out PR firms last month for calls received about stories that do not match his editorial priorities.
Explaining his frustration with the media engagement system he says, "I receive 400 emails a day, about 360 are from PR firms. Many of them have attachments of over 5 MB which means my email system is clogged. These mails range from stories about diapers to news about TV channels to marine fuel monitoring, and even PR awards wins. It's a spray and pray approach. But, one person is not to blame, the industry is to blame, the database that PR professionals carry with from one firm to another is a deluge for us."
To illustrate the issue, Pahwa narrates this incident, "I was sitting with some friends from the PR business and I received a call from a PR professional regarding a story that had nothing to do with what medianama reports on. I asked the professional if they knew what we did at medianama."
On receiving a reply to the negative, Pahwa says he then directed them to the site and the about section. At which point, says Pahwa, the PR professionals apologised and hung up.
Raghavendra Rao, partner and CEO, Bernay IMC explains that "In established agencies training is given as to how sensitive it is and they are exposed to media only after they have spent some time in the agency. But the smaller agencies don’t attempt this at all and expose newcomers too early and end up creating a crisis for the agency. Since they are short-staffed they are forced into this with an urgency to deliver for clients."
Sushovan Chakraborty, AVP, PR with web commerce solutions firm Ace Turtle says, this is natural considering that "For a long time, PR as a profession was dependent on media relations. The stronger the relations, the higher the recognition we used to give to the individual."
Chakraborty points out that in today's world of integrated communications, "The dependency on media relations is a misguided attribute for many newcomers, especially who didn't know how to draw the line between maintaining relations and being an irritant. While there is no excuse of the recent rant which we come across from media fraternity against PR professional, what we require today is media intelligence rather than media relation. Media intelligence will automatically help to strengthen the relationship as it will help in logically defining the approach one should take towards handling media as a whole."
Aanandita Bhatnagar, director, corporate communications, NetApp India Private Limited, admits, "There is a shortfall of the relationship between the two interdependent communities. This relationship deficit could be a fallout of the digital age where both parties prefer WhatsApp kind of tools to communicate which are super-efficient but build no real relationships. If we invest a little more time getting to know each other and not resort to publicly shaming any professional community, things would be better."
Bhatnagar adds that "A rise of untrained early-career staff in both communities is also a fact. When such resources are used as arms and legs without adequate training, quality suffers."
Anupriya Deepak, associate director, external communications - Global Markets, Nielsen feels, "There is no dearth of fresh ideas in our eco-system, however, more needs to be done in supporting teamwork and offering a considerate level of independence to young PR professionals to produce great results."
Shashank Bharadwaj, brand communications executive - PR & Digital, PRHUB, analyses that "If you look at the tweets of the journalists expressing their displeasure dealing with PRs, it's most of the time directed towards PR Interns or junior members."
Bharadwaj suggests that "PR consultancies taking PR interns must take the responsibility to nurture and train them properly instead of just limiting them (interns) to update media list, doing daily media monitoring and calling journos asking on what story they are working on."
Senior public relations professional Rahul Rakesh agrees saying, "Looking at the recent outburst of journalists I am forced to think we as seniors and mentors have not been able to do our part of imparting adequate training and guidance to the younger lot."
He adds, "What we also need to accept is no matter how good our processes are, there would always be some bad experiences. Such experiences should be looked at as learning and a way to better oneself, nothing beyond."
Nisha Ramchandani, who handles outreach at Axilor Venture advised that "If you are on the client-side, be patient and less demanding. Train and onboard your entire team."
Ramchandani also suggested that "The junior-most members should first be trained on calls. Do not convert them into call centre or data entry operators! And let the PR team attend strategy meets."
Ramchandani adds, " There is no point getting into a blame game. Let us look at how we can clean the house first."
Challenges PR professionals face with journalists
While journalists can get away with naming and shaming PR professionals on public platforms, PR executives end up having to swallow their words and keep quiet about their issues.
Sean Faia, Goa-based communication professional shares that, "One of the challenges is approaching a journalist who has a negative attitude and looks down on PR professionals in general. To be fair to a journalist, it’s important for a PR professional to approach a journalist with a brief, well-crafted pitch after having done adequate research. Not doing so will not yield positive results. In my experience, this works best."
Suhasini Ahluwalia Mehta, founder, Stellant Communications Pvt. Ltd has a positive approach to the issue of friction between the two communication communities saying, "Journalists and PR professionals are generally mature and understand each other’s challenges. There may be some journalists who do not do enough research before an interview for example or there may be journalists who come with a pre-defined theory and are willing to go out with that lens when interviewing and writing a story. Like I said, overall, its very individual driven and doesn’t apply to all."
Shashank Bharadwaj says, "Journalists tend to treat PRs with disdain. While rejection is part of the PR profession, it would be good if journalists let us know why they have rejected the pitch. While replying to each pitch mail is challenging for journalists, even a one-sentence reply will create a huge difference in the long run."
"Uncertainty of journalists acknowledging or responding to emails which will leave PR folks in a soup, and with no choice left, we will have to call them for feedback", is another issue he adds.
However, journalists would say that if they are not responding they are just not interested in the story and few journalists would feel obliged to update on why they are not doing a story.
Rahul Rakesh agrees that "Few of the journalists, just do not respond to any of the means used to reach out to them. The irony is that this is the connected world."
Rakesh recommends, "The way out of this is 'mail, message, call, repeat'. If need be to escalate the matter to the senior journalist or editor and follow the same steps. Another way of reaching out to them is to have an appointment and meet. Discuss your pitch in person."
While face to face meetings are invaluable, many journalists, partly due to the pressure of a shortage of journalists, partly due to the advent of digital journalism, are not able to give the time for that. Accessing journalists for even a basic conversation has become much more challenging than it was a decade ago.
Anupriya Deepak, agrees that, "Getting attention from the journalist and driving the moot point of the story-line is fundamentally a big task, but even if that comes your way what matters to me is always keeping a check on my mind that the owner of the story is still the 'journalist'-essentially listening more and know when to stop talking instead of rambling. Having an idea is one thing but articulating it and making a case for its relevance is the real test. So the 'WHY' to everything you pitch is what matters most."
Another issue is the lack of an updated database and lack of consent from the journalists to be contacted. Pahwa says, "It is not unreasonable to ask to not be spammed. When medianama sends a mail, even existing subscribers have the option to opt-out. How many PR firms give such an option to journalist to opt-out of the story?"
Pahwa says he appreciates firms such as Wizikey and its sister firm Boring Brands who do give journos the option to opt-out of a story or distribution list.
One final issue regarding media relations is raised by Rao who says, "The challenge is to handle a tier 2 or tier 3 media they are extremely noisy and in an open house always want to make their presence felt. They have to be calmed down as it should not become a crisis with so many people around. Only someone senior can cool down things in this situation."
To speak or not to speak!
Would a PR professional call out a journalist for a bad experience? Not surprisingly, the answer is 'No'.
But Pahwa advises, "If a journalist misbehaves call them out. There are times I have called back and apologised. The fact is that the journalist's job is highly stressful and the deluge of calls and emails creates tremendous stress."
However, Mehta says, "I don't think calling out names on social media helps anyone in the long run. When a journalist misbehaves, we as communicators could put on their shoes and offer the best solution. We have had instances where both parties were quite open to having a dialogue and then apologising or backing off with an understanding and not carrying any baggage with us for future interactions."
Says Faia, "I’d just let it pass and move on. But I would keep a distance from the journalist in the future."
Rao admits that he would not name but shares an instance where he says, "A journalist from a lead financial publication held our client story for want of a return gift and then didn’t carry the story despite giving the gift. However, I brought this to the attention of bureau chief and the editor and he was taken to task and I also got my story out."
On a lighter note, trying to infuse some humour, integrated communications firm, SPRD is giving these fun postcards for journos, highlighting the essential but sometimes fraught relationship between PR and journalism!
Check these out:
Here's to better, more productive smoother ties between the two.