Promotions and Incentives: What not to waste

Giving gifts to journalists is a good way of getting noticed - but be careful what you send, says Jo Bowman. It's the season for giving and, for many in the industry, it's time to send the annual sackful of Christmas trinkets from clients to the press.

But it takes a clever PRO to distinguish between gifts that can make a journalist smile, those that might raise an eyebrow, and those that go straight in the bin.

A straw poll of journalists shows the majority of 'freebies' are thrown away, while most of the others are regarded with scepticism, if not offence.

And some consultancies say journalist hostility to the suggestion they might be influenced by a coffee mug, case of wine or branded tote bag means gifts for the media have run their course.

But the truth is that a well-chosen gift can be effective in making a journalist regard the sender more fondly, or make them spring to mind more often. 'A gift can work well if it's valuable to the journalist and tied in with the brand,' says Bite Communications consumer managing director Sheryl Seitz.

Rules of giving

It's an obvious rule, but perhaps not one that's always adhered to. One women's glossy, for example, says that apart from being inundated with free tampons, its journalists often receive children's books and other items inappropriate for the publication.

Likewise, The Sun newsdesk was once sent a dictionary/thesaurus for the 'editor' of its non-existent book-review page.

Givers should also ensure their gift is one the recipient would like to receive. Attempts at cleverness last Christmas led to such unwanted gifts as an empty hamper sent by a bank, a bottle of water labelled as champagne, and a snow-shaker lacking just one thing - something to shake.

Motoring journalist Vaughan Freeman says freebies are a huge part of car-industry culture. 'Bottles of wine, a mini-fridge, odd sculptures, endless car models and numerous coffee-table books have been among the freebies,' he says. 'I leave most of them behind in the hotel room.'

Freeman says the gift that was initially his most useful but became the most useless was the radio with ear plugs for the Le Mans 24-hour race. The radio only operates on one frequency, for coverage of the race, and the station only runs for 24 hours a year.

'The most hideous was a silk tie and scarf set that my wife promptly dropped in the rubbish bin after I had brought it home,' he adds. 'Only later did we find out they were worth about £200 each.'

PC Magazine editor Kelvyn Taylor believes that clothes and accessories usually go down well. But beware what you send out. Taylor has a denim jacket hung up in the magazine's office that no one will wear because it has a huge company logo on the back.

And bear in mind your gift should be just as relevant to the client as it is to the journalist. For example, a Virgin Atlantic spokeswoman explains the company gives journalists a goody bag on press trips - they are usually based on the theme of the trip and can be useful at the destination. Earlier this year, journalists taken to Ulusaba, Sir Richard Branson's private game reserve in South Africa, were given a rucksack, safari hat, binoculars, a book on game in the area, mosquito repellent and a face spritzer.

Good intentions

'The idea behind giving the gifts is to give the guests an insight of what is to come and also hopefully some happy memories of the trip,' the spokeswoman says.

Elsewhere, Clareville Communications recently gave away branded mugs for a tea and scone promotion, a garden-plant collection from a new plant website, and a launch pack for a puzzle, which included a puzzle, a music CD and specially branded chocolate. Clotted cream was once sent out to mark the launch of a country magazine.

And when Bite Communications co-ordinated the launch event for Apple's iTunes music download system, it gave journalists £15 worth of iTunes vouchers so they could try it for themselves.

While the temptation might be to splash out on a gift, particularly if it's for a journalist a client particularly wants to have on side, freebies should obey the 'less is more' rule because too flash a gift will often backfire.

'An ostensibly lavish gift tends to alarm me and make me feel that to prove I haven't been compromised by the freebie, I must be overly critical of the car,' says Freeman. 'I am far more likely to be influenced by press officers or car company executives who I have known for years, who have helped me in the past, and with whom the line between professional relationship and friendship has become blurred.'

The personal touch is preferred over gift giving at Barclays Bank. PR manager Hannah Irani says the bank tends to focus more on events and face-to-face relationship-building.

Some media outlets have rules barring journalists from accepting freebies; at the BBC, for instance, anything more valuable than a biro or a calendar is likely to be problematic under the corporation's staff guidelines.

If there is to be a gift, however, forget the age-old novelty survival kit with headache tablets and Lucozade for Christmas - instead, make the present stand out.

A series of promotional gifts sent to journalists by Bite on behalf of client Yahoo! recently made the news themselves, with a story in The Guardian.

Each day, a different feature of Yahoo's services was promoted with a small gift - an umbrella for the British summer on 'weather' day, for instance, and some gold chocolate coins to promote stock reports.

Taylor says his best-ever gift was a full-size watering can sent from Fujitsu, which he still uses and which his colleagues still talk about.

Not entirely relevant to the client - a PC magazine - it must be said, but effective because it was useful and novel. Therefore, oddball yet keepable gifts can help to keep a client in journalists' minds.

Payback time

Clareville Communications director Sarah Milne, however, warns that sending a gift as an incentive is unlikely to generate much payback, although it does depend on the gift. 'If it's a promotional product then it's more about branding and looking for journalist product recall when editorial features and articles are being prepared,' she says.

'However, if it's an overseas press trip to see new merchandise or experience new locations then the expectation would be higher,' she adds.

A promotional gift is not necessarily going to influence a story, but what it can do is help secure a greater share of voice in any resulting editorial. If the gift involves journalist contact with client or agency - such as an outing or event - then it could help build a long-term working relationship.

THE JOURNALISTS' VIEW

KELVYN TAYLOR, EDITOR, PC MAGAZINE

'Probably the worst PR freebie I've ever seen was the pogo stick from some long-dead internet start-up in the late 1990s. But that's closely matched by the piles of tat that seem to emanate from Taiwanese vendors - unusable ballpoint pens, manicure sets embossed with logos etc.

'The most bizarre and extravagant promotion was from Samsung's hard-drive division, which sent out frozen ready meals to the entire editorial team, followed a day later by a Samsung microwave oven to cook them in.'

JURGEN PANDER, FREELANCE WRITER

'The thing I dislike most is when companies give you something decorative to sit on your desk, or designer clothes with a company logo on them.

Mostly I like small things that just say "It's nice to have you here" and don't give you the sense of trying to influence anything. And it's nice to have something you can use; for example, if you're in Italy then a bottle of good olive oil is suitable.

'I like BMW events because it stopped giving any gifts about two or three years ago - a perfect dinner is enough.'

HUGH CARNEGY, ASSISTANT EDITOR, FINANCIAL TIMES

'The Financial Times has a policy of not allowing its journalists to accept gifts any more valuable than, say, a pen or a calendar. When it would not be offensive or awkward to refuse it, they are supposed to give back the item. All other gifts are pooled for a Christmas raffle that raises a couple of thousand pounds for charity each year.

'Clearly people don't give out gifts for the love of it. The more tempting the gift, the more the journalistic hackles tend to rise.'

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