PR should stand up to scribes – Column in DNA


Found this column in DNA. Felt it’s worth sharing.. Read on :D

Surekha Pillai: PR should stand up to scribes

Surekha Pillai | Sunday, August 28, 2011

One of the most exciting — and sometimes nerve wracking — events in the life of a PR fresher is when s/he is first assigned to an outstation project. I got my break a year after I joined a PR agency, when I was sent to Calcutta to coordinate three media interviews for an overseas client. I prepared well for the project, and the media outlets I had pitched to readily agreed to the interviews. I sent extensive briefing material to the journalists, reconfirmed the meetings, and finally reached Calcutta after enjoying what was my first flight experience.

After meeting the client, I reached the first media outlet — a leading newspaper in Calcutta — to pick up the journalist. I walked into the bustling business bureau where I was taken to the correspondent who was busy tapping away at the keyboard. I flashed a big smile, introduced myself and told him that the car was waiting outside. He looked up at me and casually said: “Oh I can’t make it. I’m busy, something has come up.” I froze for several seconds while he went back to his tapping.

After what seemed like an eternity, I managed a weak smile and reminded him that I had reconfirmed the interview the previous evening and the client who was waiting to meet him at the hotel had travelled from the US just for these meetings. Nothing happened. In a last-ditch effort, I requested him to send a colleague. “No one is free.” I walked out, sat on a bench and wept, battling visions of a furious client and a boss morphed into one fire-breathing dragon enveloping me in flames. I am not sure what made me do what I did next — perhaps it was fear — but I walked into the chief of bureau’s room and, in between tears, narrated what had happened and pleaded with him to assign someone. Luckily he did and the day was saved.

I experienced different versions of this event throughout my PR career. Once a trainee reporter was sent as a replacement to a business magazine editor to interview a global CEO, and asked him questions about competitor brands, assuming them to be from his company’s portfolio. A reporter once showed up over 90 minutes late for an interview with a company chairman after assuring me every five minutes that he would be reaching in the next five.

Then there was this time a TV journalist, after confirming the show she wanted to interview my client for, walked in without the camera crew and said she just wanted an informal chat. On another occasion, a show producer repeatedly assured me a journalist was on her way to meet my client — an Ambassador — as I continued to wilt under his glare. The journalist didn’t show up and I saved those SMSes for years as a reminder of how some journalists could deliberately mislead.

Another memorable incident comes from a time when a reporter from India’s top news daily demanded I leave the room in which the interview I helped set up (with a much-in-demand music director who hadn’t yet won an Academy Award) was being held. I refused to leave my client’s side. The interview took place and was soon followed up with a call from a shrieking editor of the entertainment supplement to my boss with an order that I call her up and apologise within the next 10 minutes. My boss was kind enough to pass on the message and leave the decision to me. I didn’t make the call mostly out of anger and partly from fear — the editor was known to be a terror.

The PR industry is replete with stories about journalists’ appalling levels of arrogance and unprofessionalism. While a large part of it could be attributed to their cocky assumption that the PR community needs them more than the other way round, much of it is also a result of PR professionals taking this impudence without protest. If no solution comes to mind, dear PR industry, a hunger strike to get media to accord due respect to PR might not be a bad idea. Anybody?

Pallavi Palan
Blogger at The Color Purple

7 comments on “PR should stand up to scribes – Column in DNA

  1. The article is definitely a superb read.. while i read between the lines, many such incidents that happened in my life flashed my mind.. But it is so indeed true, these incidents, I am sure must have happened in the lives of every PR professional (not to directly blame the journo friends) and we must have spoken to our colleagues or friends in industry or close journo friends for that matter.. must have also expressed anger and frustration… or laughed over such incidents… I am sure there have been very little opportunities where we could actually could do something about such incidents.. For one of my earlier conference, we invited the senior editors (travel) of leading publications and fixed interactions for the Ambassador & Senior representatives of a country who were visiting India for the first time.. We got to the know that none of the spokespersons actually landed in India an hour before the conference and we could do nothing about it.. Sorry face in front of the editors who reached the venue on time.. There was hardly anything we could do….

    Reading this article by SP brings back all fond memories..

    Not to mention I admire Surekha for what she is.. Had the opportunity to work with her in the past and wish i could work with her in the near future too.

    Thanks & Regards,

    Neha Agarwal Haria
    Independent PR Consultant
    GSM : +91 9833916643

  2. Interesting anecdotes. I have on both sides of the table (first as a journo and then as a PR\Corpcomm person), for what now seems like centuries but in reality is about three decades.

    As you have good PR people and bad PR people, good clients and bad clients, good bosses and terrible bosses, you will inevitably have responsible journos who are upfront about whether they want to cover a story or not and having agreed, keep to the meeting schedule; and there are others who may say yes and don’t give a damn. Then there will always be situations which are beyond the control of the journo as well and if a story is breaking (especially true for TV journalists) they have no option but to chase that rather than meet our clients.

    I believe it is an occupational hazard and nothing much can be done about it. But over the years, I have realised that if you build your relationships well, ensure that the journo gets value, either in terms of a good story or a perspective from either you or your client, then they value the interaction and unless circumstances are really beyond their control do not cancel confirmed appointments. And in case they do, they have the courtesy to either call\sms in advance (not at the 11th hour) so that alternative arrangements can be made.

    But the critical issue here is building that relationship. I have worked with a heck of lot of people who call themselves PR professionals but I am sorry so say function as courier boys/girls mindlessly forwarding press releases/briefing notes about their client and then except the media to be grateful for fixing up meetings with such clients.

    May be I am being harsh, but very rarely do I come across a PR professional who knows his/her client’s business inside out, has enough understanding and perspective about issues facing the client’s industry and can significantly add value to the journo. Those PR professionals who are able to do this, are invariably treated with a difference, in fact deference by the media.


    Sent from my iPad

  3. Good article by Surekha Pillai. Probably many PR pros go through this in the beginning of their career. However, it seems only one side of story. There could be lot more reasons for such embarrassment.


  4. Hi,

    I read this article and its quite an interesting read :)

    I somehow think, journalist’s know that they are bread and butter for a PR professional. Also on other hand, we too at times treat them as just a method or a way to get our story printed, which should not be the case.

    LinOpinion Public Relations
    Handphone: 09833228876

  5. yes , sometimes things go out of hand , wanted to share my experiance with team,
    as sulekha said, its good to approach seniors and explain the situation like she did, and neha next time your spokespersons miss a flight try what i did it was a rocking success we did a mobile press conference where my bb was the ceo voice over the mike, the ceo travelling from a delayed flt till the hall , he manged to arrive for the photo op.

    i alwz made plan b, if there were 3 interview slots, some how got 5 confirmations so even if the slots went dry i had people to fill up and advised the client that the word had got out and others came to know on how important he was and it would be a bad idea to avoid meeting them, and the journalist were informed that the client had asked for 3 but accomodating you as a favour, these guys gave best coverage and saved the day.
    Also made the client fully aware in the briefing note about the traffic, hierachy, marketing, political, social, cancelations which could happen last minute and the agency will try and do their best to fill the empty slots, after filling it ,ensured the concerend confirmed reporter atleast talk over the phone to the spokeserson directly.

    if we show our concern to them they also understand us , we all doing our jobs,

    time changes and last minute is alwz the critical one, that what makes us professionals, every friday is a new movie and a new challenge,

    as my friend ashwin says failing to prepare is preparing to fail
    have a gread idd and ganpati bapa morya

  6. The article was also a topic for discussion on Twitter:

    kushanmitra Kushan Mitra: @surekhapillai I know many of you folks personally and would even call some people in PR ‘friends’, dealing with journos is a bitch of a job
    50 minutes ago

    surekhapillai Surekha Pillai: @kushanmitra thanks kushan. this is just one side of the story. there are also people in the media who have gone out of the way to help.
    48 minutes ago

    kushanmitra Kushan Mitra: @surekhapillai no, there are some extreme cases of unprofessionalism on both sides, but mutual understanding and respect helps.
    46 minutes ago

    surekhapillai Surekha Pillai: @kushanmitra but when they decide to do a feature/story on clients, they bypass us and go directly to the clients. makes us redundant.
    43 minutes ago

    kushanmitra Kushan Mitra: @surekhapillai I feel an agency is a facilitator rather than a gatekeeper. If it starts thinking it is the latter, journos will work around
    40 minutes ago

    @2sharTushar Kanwar: @kushanmitra Bang on Kushan. I’ve seen many agencies being insecure about revealing client contacts for this very reason @surekhapillai

  7. Right said Raju Sir,

    First thing first is bite what you can chew. More than running after monies to show billing in your verticals, it is important to digest a client brief. And still more important as a PR professional, is to resist, and deny what you cannot do.

    I have had a few experiences like Surekha had, but I take it in my stride for my ignorance – not getting the client ‘grief’ right, and not getting the media ‘grief’ as well. Both want the stories, but as match makers (or meddle men), we tend to push our own agenda.

    He may not be a great journo, not understand the subject et al fine, but are we the perfect PR guys!

    Get the Home Work correct – you will never have any problem with any media.



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