Last Sunday, a tweet by Neerja Birla started a bit of a Twitter storm. A pitch to an Indian Express reporter for the Birla run mental health foundation led to the reporter tweeting about it. The consequences are well known:
Thank you @CaptBackspace for bringing this to my notice. What has happened today, is an absolute tragedy. Neither @mpowerminds nor me stand for what my PR agency has put out. It was an unsanctioned oversight. I am cutting all ties with my PR agency with immediate effect.— Neerja Birla (@NeerjaBirla) June 14, 2020
As the discussion flew back and forth, it brought to a head once again an ongoing challenge in the PR-journo relationship, the fact that journalists often publicly call out pitches made to them. Often PR professional, PR firms and brands are named, sometimes with serious consequences for those named.
PRmoment India discussed this key issue with a range of PR professionals, young and those in leadership positions to find out what can be done about this deep seated problem. Stemming as it does from a deep lack of trust between PR pros and journos, driven by legacy relationship dynamics and also a systemic lack of empowerment of PR professionals to pitch proper stories,
Says Tarunjeet Rattan, managing partner, Nucleus PR, "This practice is in poor taste and unbecoming for the media profession.
There are always two sides of a story but unfortunately, we never hear from the PR side because no one wants to take up the cudgels for a cub executive because no one wants to be on the bad side of a journalist. There are so many ways a journalist can handle the situation: escalate it to a PR senior or the PR firm head, help the PR person understand, participate in industry sessions, and create a positive dialogue. Unfortunately, for most these options are very hard to do because it takes effort. Posting it on a social media network is an easy (read: lazy) way out. And it's not like journalists don't make mistakes or harass with insensitivity or come totally unprepared."
Radhesh Arora, PR professional, agrees, " Some of media personnel act discourteously the moment they discover the call is from a PR professional. This creates a negative impact on a PR professional who has just started his career. The one thing which starts haunting you is: “Have I made the right decision of entering in this profession?”
Richa Seth, communications consultant says, "I believe that media and PR professionals should work cohesively and support each other since we belong to the same ecosystem of creating interesting, engaging and impactful stories that resonate with the readers. Social media has empowered everyone to share an opinion, rant or publically shame people, however, doing this does more harm than good. And as they say, to err is human, we all learn from our mistakes, sharing candid feedback with compassion can go a long way in building a budding PR professional."
Shalini Singh, founder, Galvanise PR says, "Social media is giving always available ground to anyone to publicly shame which is highly inappropriate. I would stand strong support for my team if they experience public shaming because they goofed up. It is important to cultivate empathy."
Misbah Quadri, senior communications professional, however, points out, " I think every conversation with a journalist is perpetually on record. To expect that a media professional will not make it public is nothing but naïve."
Quadri explain further, "While some people within the PR fraternity are of the opinion that this is a time for everyone to come together and that journalists must refrain from indulging in ‘mud slinging’ towards PR practitioners, I do believe that the best approach is to ensure that we keep our positioning as clear and error free as possible. I, as a former journalist can say that media professionals receive endless communications from several agencies each day, and when any ‘dubious’ emails or whatsapp messages happen to reach them, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to overlook it. Having said that, I also feel that journalists must lay a softer hand on the PR universe, especially in the current climate."
Sunny Devraj Suryavanshi, PR Manager, empathises with the journalists saying "At the end of the day, even journalists are human beings, and they are bound to get overboard and express their discomfort about what they go through publicly on social media.Take the classic case of a journalist from a reputed publication. When she was sacked, she went publicly to express the same and was vocal about her feelings by saying that after being associated with the publication for 24 years, she was being asked to leave, she even mentioned her boss's name who had called her to give away that news. These are the perils of social media. I am sure she must have received a lot of sympathy messages, but at the same time she must have received a lot of criticism and hence her post is now removed (which was a sensible thing to do). So we need to give them that benefit of doubt."
One sided naming and shaming
Arti* ( name changed at request) makes an important point about conduct saying, "While there is greater focus being laid on a code of conduct in the corporate world, the same should be true for the world of journalism too. After all, it's a symbiotic relationship that journalists and PR professionals have."
Arti * adds that, "While journalists openly vent their irritation with the PR world and feel entitled to do so without the fear of facing any heat. Let us not forget a lot of journalists are freeloaders too."
She says further, "They easily forget that there are no free lunches. Sometimes journalists interact with spokesperson and then refuse to give honest feedback or simply a clear yes or no. Many back out of interactions or reschedule them at the last minute. So many PR people are on the receiving end from clients and internally just because of this. Yet, PR professionals are scared to call out as they fear spoiling media relationships."
Shailesh K. Nevatia, chief consultant, Grandeavour Communication says, "Lack of basic research and homework, training by senior management, and not following basic guidelines, one is bound to be named and shamed publicly Although most of the senior journalists and media avoid naming it publicly, it's the small outlet or bloggers and social media influencers who act over smart and are spoiling the industry at large, I believe."
Moushumi Dutt, senior communications consultant says, "Frankly every time, a journalist takes to Twitter to bring down or defame a communications/ PR professional, it is more a reflection on a journalist who is quite insecure and derives some great pleasure by bringing down someone on a social media platform. It sort of borders on cyber bullying."
Dutt explains, "So yes, more often than not, every once in a while, we end up seeing a flurry of conversations and criticism, triggered by an all too rushed out post sent out by someone who has received a "faulty" media pitch mail. Whatever precautions and checks are done, I think there will always be a select bunch of very vigilant journalists who are waiting in the wings to strike back."
Adds Dutt, "Is there any quick fix remedy to this, perhaps not, all I can suggest is, please avoid general en masse pitch mails, the fault lines lie there. I do feel very strongly that, a full disclosure like this on Twitter amounts to cyber bullying and should be taken up. I must confess that in contrast, I think the PR community is far more restrained."
Geetika Gulati, founder, ZIVComms, agrees saying, "It is not a secret now and everyone knows how media is perceived as a different species all together when it comes to following up with them or checking with them on possible stories. Those who suffer the most are the new entrants or those who are 2-3 years into the PR profession. The constant rude behavior of media people, hanging up the call on someone's face or throwing a tricky one at them just to embarrass them further - all of this takes a lot of confidence away from the beginners. Their motivation to perform and get results drops drastically. They start to shirk media followups and lose interest. So much so that there are jokes doing rounds in the industry that media folks save our numbers as DO NOT PICK UP 1, DO NOT PICK UP 2! How is all this motivating anyone to do anything?"
Gulati, adds, "Mentors should also keep a strict quality control, the pitch (written and verbal) that's reaching media, the relevance."
Vedaxari Joshi, founder, All ‘Bout Communication says, "As an industry we should spend some time in educating the media what is the role of a PR agency and it is way more than what they see on the surface. PR agency does represent their client’s interest but at the same time it isn’t a vehicle to manipulate the truth or encourage yellow journalism."
Solution is long term culture of quality story pitching, understanding journalist's role
Jigar Chatwani, partner & business lead, Vicara PR says, "One key thing that we need to tell our team members is that the journalists do not report to us. Even though they have agreed to do a story and have taken all the possible information from us, they are well within their rights to drop the story completely without being answerable to us. Sadly, we need to accept this shortcoming of our profession (among many others) and manage client expectations accordingly."
Chatwani also calls for a little understanding from the journalist, "I have personally experienced this earlier in my career, when a journalist called one of my seniors to complain about my behaviour. I was under extreme pressure from my client to ensure we get sufficient coverage on a certain press release and was calling this journalist every 2 hours for a follow up. I realised my mistake and I sent the journalist an apologetic email immediately. In the email, I also asked for a convenient time for us to speak. After the conversation, we became good friends and now he prints all of my stories, well, most of them!"
Quadri believes,"We must emphasise on rigorous training for executives and senior executives. It is pivotal to impart teaching on how and when should a journalist be approached. More importantly, it is imperative to make the executives understand which opportunity is worth optimizing upon. We have seen various examples of PR professionals reaching out to the media with the sheer intent of client coverage, and ending up with a poor reflection of the brand as well as the agency. This is entirely avoidable."
Rattan advises that the only option is to, "Train, train, and train. When there is a breaking story/incident the easiest thing to do is to speak to your teams and help them understand what and how to pitch a story with empathy and sensitivity. Don't just bark orders and push them for stories. If it is a tough subject, take the lead and get your client involved and ask them for story pegs that will be suitable for them instead of just agreeing to magically drum up media opportunities. PR is an equal partnership between the client and the agency and they as responsible for the success or failure of a story as the agency."
Do join us for the PRmoment India Webinar Series on Empathetic Media Engagement. 23rd June, 2020. 5 to 6 PM . Book: https://www.prmoment.in/event/empathetic-media-engagement-getting-media-relations-right