Many journalists have a particular way of handling annoyed readers and pushy PRs.
And after nearly two decades of writing (and especially in the past seven years as the editor of two titles) one gets to learn a few tricks.
Take our wonderful friends in the PR industry. Like many titles, we get dozens of utterly pointless press releases every single day of the week.
Quite often they begin something like this (paraphrasing, but you’ll get the idea):
“Hey, Kevin, hope you are well and had an awesome weekend.”
[Not the best start - if only they knew]
“Hotel X has just redecorated its lounge area, using materials and the imagination of Obscure Designer Y. I thought this would be an amazing story for Tnooz.”
Nine times out of ten the release heads straight into the email bin.
But sometimes, perhaps when sitting in the garden having a quick cuppa or bored on a train, it is rather rewarding to have a play around for a while to get the real story or set the boundaries for future pitches.
Nevertheless, perhaps one of the biggest complaints journos have these days is around meaningless pitches accompanied with further time-wasting by PRs.
This next scenario happens far too (and increasingly) often to be funny any more.
“Hey Kevin, it’s Tarquin Plummy-Soho here of Awesomosity PR.”
Oh god, here goes.
“Hi, what can I do for you on this incredibly busy day.”
Still in upbeat mode:
“Hey, how’s it going?”
Getting a bad feeling about this:
“I was ok.”
Here it comes:
“Fantastic. Hey, I just sent you an email a few minutes ago with a really interesting press release attached.”
No, no, no:
On a roll here:
“Yeah, my client, Hotel X, has just redecorated its lounge area, using materials and the imagination of Obscure Designer Y. I thought this would be an amazing story for Tnooz.”
“Yes, I got it.”
“So is it something you can feature on Tnooz? I think it’s a great fit.”
Enough is enough:
“Really? As I presume you know full well, Tnooz writes primarily about travel technology, so on a scale of one to ten, with ten being probably the best story we’re ever had the pleasure of publishing, it is highly likely that this story is hanging around at minus-two at the moment, given that this is a pitch to write about the new furnishings in a hotel. Sorry.”
Disappointment kicks in:
“Oh, there’s no need to be like that.”
Trying to get the upper hand/back on friendly terms:
“Well, err, fair enough, I suppose. Next time, if you can just quickly let me know that you’re not going to use a release, then that would be awesome.”
Have to get the final waspish dig in, obviously:
“No, it’s okay, I’ll just wait for when you call me two minutes after sending the email.”
I count many PRs as good friends and have strong relationships with comms people everywhere, but this is far too common these days that it sours and therefore strains the relationship media folk have with the industry.
Angry readers, however, are another matter entirely.
Any journo will know that if an article is fair, balanced and accurate then if mud is thrown at you by a disgruntled reader then it is unlikely to stick, both from a legal or reputation standpoint.
Web publishing has allowed us to react far quicker to issues than in the good ol’ days of the Dead Tree Press, such as making corrections, clarifying a point-of-view in the comments section of an article, etc.
But sometimes, when a reader is so outraged that they actually pick up the phone to complain, then a defter touch is required.
More often than not, just letting the caller scream at the editor of a title for a few minutes is a remarkably efficient way of diffusing a situation.
This should always be followed by a calm and simple explanation of why a particular angle was taken, how you hope the next story about Company X will be better received, etc.
Of course, if a story is wrong in some way, just get it fixed.
There are masters out there who know how to manage such potentially explosive situations in various ways, but almost all of them are cool, calm and collected when doing so.
Indeed, years ago I had an editor who had a canny knack of upsetting people, but always managed to be on the receiving end of an invitation to lunch by the end of the phone call.
Still, the best and funniest example of handling an angry reader, albeit in a very spiky fashion, is the (in)famous Arkell vs Pressdram case from 1971, featuring ongoing thorn-in-the-side of almost anyone in a position of power, satirical weekly magazine Private Eye.
Solicitor (Goodman Derrick & Co.):
“We act for Mr Arkell who is Retail Credit Manager of Granada TV Rental Ltd. His attention has been drawn to an article appearing in the issue of Private Eye dated 9th April 1971 on page 4. The statements made about Mr Arkell are entirely untrue and clearly highly defamatory. We are therefore instructed to require from you immediately your proposals for dealing with the matter. Mr Arkell’s first concern is that there should be a full retraction at the earliest possible date in Private Eye and he will also want his costs paid. His attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of your reply.”
“We acknowledge your letter of 29th April referring to Mr J. Arkell. We note that Mr Arkell’s attitude to damages will be governed by the nature of our reply and would therefore be grateful if you would inform us what his attitude to damages would be, were he to learn that the nature of our reply is as follows: fuck off.”
There was, inevitably, no reply…
NB: Pic via SXC.