The age-old tension between PR professionals and journalists is well documented. PRWeek set up an experiment to find out what would happen when a hack and a flack swapped roles for a week.
PRWeek's deputy features editor Kate Magee discarded her deadlines to go behind the scenes at Bite Communications. Meanwhile, Bite's account executive Mat Gazeley joined PRWeek's writing team, for a taste of interviewing rather than pitching to editors.
What would a PRO think of a journalist's deadlines, being on the receiving end of pitches and deciding on stories in the news meeting?
And how would a journalist cope with managing clients, pitching to other hacks, and having to make those dreaded follow-up calls?
Kate and Mat learned their jobs are more similar than they had thought.
HACK TO FLACK
A week on 'the dark side' by Kate Magee
Monday: My week as a PRO kicked off with a consumer team meeting, running through activities planned for different clients that week, before heading to my first brainstorming session. We discussed how to compile quality research for a potential story and how to position the product to consumers. Next up was a staff briefing on what the digital team could offer clients in terms of video content and online expertise. In the afternoon, I attended another client meeting where we discussed upcoming feature opportunities, industry trends and were briefed on technical industry terms such as 'memristors'. I also compiled a briefing document on a journalist who was interviewing one of Bite's clients, and found it weird to think that PROs may have done the same for me.
Tuesday: My heart sank when I was handed a press release and let loose on the regional media in Birmingham and Liverpool. With no media list, it was up to me to pick the most relevant outlets and journalists and call them before their morning news conference. Determined to avoid the sharper end of journalists' tongues, I made my pitch short and snappy, highlighting the regional angle in the second line. All the journalists I phoned were friendlier than I expected. Over lunch, a group of us, including CEO Clive Armitage met to discuss the agency's future positioning. We had an interesting discussion about how to communicate changes internally and externally.
Wednesday: I arrived at the office eager to find out whether my sell-in had produced any coverage. I was pleased to find it was one of the top five stories on the Liverpool Echo's website and made page four of the paper. While I tracked down a hard copy of the article, I wondered what had happened to the other eager-sounding journalists I had called. Later, I sat in on a client meeting and watched a Bite staffer skilfully persuade a client to take a different (and much more effective) approach to a campaign.
Thursday: Today I had to do the dreaded follow-up calls to journalists. They were less friendly this time around and I could see from a PR professional's perspective how frustrating it is not to get a clear answer on whether a story will run. But I also discovered that I had secured a second piece of coverage from the sell-in, this time broadcast coverage on Birmingham's Galaxy Radio.
In the afternoon I wrote my first press release and took great pleasure in ensuring that no puff crept in, although I've yet to find out what the client thinks of the release. The final thing on my agenda was the weekly agency meeting and then it was off to the pub for some well-deserved drinks.
Conclusions: As a specialist marketing journalist, 'the dark side' did not provide any major surprises. But it has given me a greater appreciation of the work involved in writing the press releases that land in my inbox. Overall it was interesting to see how agencies are responding to the challenges of the ever-changing digital landscape and the shake-up of the traditional marketing industry silos. On a personal level, my favourite part was throwing around ideas in brainstorming sessions. To me, this was similar to my role as a journalist; working out what is interesting about a topic and translating this into something that will engage an audience. But I still want my own name at the top of an article.
HOW KATE DID
Paul Mackender, Deputy MD, Bite Communications
Kate was a welcome addition to Bite, albeit only for a week. After a relatively quiet start - and who could blame her, sat in the middle of the office surrounded by 60-odd PROs - Kate threw herself into her agenda for the week, which was aimed at giving her a feel for life on the other side. This included everything from meeting some of our specialists, sitting in and making great contributions to brainstorms, to attending client meetings and even critiquing some of our media training presentations.
We did give Kate a media sell-in to do, which was the one thing that was initially met with dread. But using her journalistic skills to understand what makes a good story, she hit the phones and generated two pieces of coverage. While I'm not sure Kate would admit it, I think she got a buzz from doing it.
She even picked up a bat and ball and played table tennis with a number of Biters. And after a hectic week, she came down to the pub with us.
Kate is now an honorary Biter and would be welcome back at any time.
FLACK TO HACK
A week on PRWeek's team by Mat Gazeley
Monday: I arrived at the office keen to sink my teeth in and prove myself as a journalist. As I got comfortable at my new desk I digested the tasks that had been left for me. Not only did I have a portion of client work to maintain, I was also responsible for delivering a 650-word media analysis with an editor by midday on Wednesday, and a 300-word editor's desk interview, a PRO opinion article and a second feature by midday on Thursday. The pressure was definitely on. I am used to deadlines but for some reason this seemed more intense as I didn't fancy an angry editor breathing down my neck.
Monday morning rolled on and I joined the news meeting, which was very interesting, similar to a brainstorm but looking through releases and tip-offs. With the main news agreed on, everyone set about writing up their stories. I spent the rest of the day frantically emailing and phoning to secure interviews for the following day.
Tuesday: Around 10am on Tuesday I realised that as a journalist you are completely reliant on other people getting back to you and that sometimes you have to be pushy to get the job done. It was hard gathering quotes for my articles because my contact list was fairly limited. I ended up cold calling a number of agencies, but when I mentioned PRWeek, a lot of senior people were very keen to speak to me, which made life easier. In the afternoon I conducted interviews with editors of Empire and FHM, which had taken two days to organise. As I left the office the rest of the team were making their final edits to the edition.
Wednesday: In the morning we had a team meeting to run through the latest copy of PRWeek, which was fresh off the printers. It was very interesting to see the final product and critique it with everyone present. After the meeting I felt I was in a strong position as I was able to hand in my media analysis feature ahead of deadline. Just after midday my editor took me into the 'room of doom' to run through my copy. I was pleasantly surprised that only a few minor changes were needed. There may be a journo inside me yet, but all the pre-match PR training I had done writing media pitches and press releases probably helped.
Thursday: Today was less frantic but I still needed to lock down some comments from the BBC and some music PROs. This again took longer than expected as I waited for the comments to come through. Fortunately PROs are always keen to comment, so by the end of the week I had successfully completed all my tasks.
Conclusions: As for continuing my career in journalism, I think I will stick to life at Bite as a flack. But at least I now have more empathy for the journalists I am calling when selling-in my stories as I understand the hectic work they do. It has also been great to see journalists candidly talk about PROs and the stories they get sent. My advice to PROs out there is don't be lazy, personalise your emails and make sure the story or pitch is relevant, otherwise you are likely to be the talk off the office until lunch unless Kay Burley starts trending on Twitter.
HOW MAT DID
Cathy Wallace, Features editor, PRWeek
Kate is a talented and adept deputy features editor. Replacing her with Mat for a week, on the face of it, was a sure-fire way to increase my own workload, as I was braced for having to explain everything to him in minute detail.
As it turns out, I needn't have worried, because Mat picked up everything extremely quickly and was able to work off his own initiative.
The skills required to be an effective PRO are not worlds apart from those required to be an effective journalist. Mat is clearly no stranger to picking up the phone, and sounded confident and relaxed when carrying out interviews. He also displayed common sense, a vital yet often-overlooked requirement for life in a newsroom.
Mat met all his deadlines - surely a first for a PRO! - and his copy was, in general, well-written. His PR background was very obvious in his written work, which did read more like a press release than a news story. A few tweaks were required here and there, but nothing too excessive. We would certainly welcome Mat back again.