Why do Christmas freebies from PRs make me feel a tad uncomfortable (except when they don't)?

Maybe I shouldn't be looking a gift horse in the mouth, but something about the culture of PR firms sending gifts to journalists at Christmas feels a little off, writes PRWeek news editor Sam Burne James.

(Credit: Alex Deverill)
(Credit: Alex Deverill)

This time last year, I was working for charity sector mag Third Sector. As you might expect, the festive haul from in-house PR teams and agencies was essentially non-existent; we got a couple of Christmas cards, but little else – and so it should be in that sector.

Through December 2015, there was a steady if modest stream of bits and bobs coming into the PRWeek office. There was some food and drink, a (tastefully) branded scarf, notepads, pens, some socks with an agency logo on them, a card game, selfie sticks and costumes to dress up in for a selfie, a singing gherkin, books and all sorts. This is in addition to other odds and ends we receive throughout the year, and bringing this topic up among journalists prompts myriad stories of bizarre or misplaced gifts, one of my favourites being the colleague who received several punnets of bad strawberries one time.

Now, the last thing on earth I’d want to do (or my colleagues would want me to do) is discourage people from sending us the occasional cake or bottle of wine.

But there is something about this receiving of gifts that I am a little bit uncomfortable with sometimes. Quite simply, it can feel like people are trying to bribe us – although of course I know that is almost certainly never really the case.

The reality is that giving gifts is something a little more subtle – it’s about putting your brand in front of a journalist, creating a positive impression and a point of conversation. Great, but unused as I am to receiving such gifts, I can’t help but wonder whether each present is quite so innocent.

Perhaps I should be less pompous about it, just enjoy the free jam and pickles and carry on in the same spirit of integrity as always, just treating the gifts as an enjoyable quirk.

But since you're (almost certainly) reading this article out of a desire to improve yourself as a PR professional, I thought I'd offer this advice – don't imagine that sending a gift is a proxy for proper media relations. It won't create a good relationship with a journalist, nor is it really likely to change it.

If you're thinking of getting gifts sent out, ask yourself these questions: are we just doing it because it's what we do every year? Am I actually going to contact this journalist, or are they just getting this because they've been on my contact list for a few months? Is this just going to end up in the bin? Am I sending the same thing to journalists as to clients, and if so, why? Most importantly, what am I trying to achieve? And how is this gift going to achieve it?

Oh, and by the way – I do on one level or another appreciate the various gifts. Consider this blog your thank you letter.

Sam Burne James is the UK news editor of PRWeek

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