'Good relationships with the media' is always one of those criteria
to be checked off in the box of 'worthwhile reasons to use me' when
talking about PR.
Whether it applies to an agency pitching for a lucrative piece of
business or the head of PR at a local authority trying to get a bigger
budget for his department, good media relations skills is always pretty
high up the list.
While in any PR organisation there may be a number of people who really
do enjoy excellent relations with individual members of the media and a
mere telephone call can achieve the desired result, a journalist's first
contact with the 'story' is usually via a press release. Some
journalists prefer them on paper, while others demand only e-mails.
PRWeek decided to research what a selection of senior journalists in
various sectors thought of the contents of their mailbag during a
We wanted to find out what they liked or didn't like, what irritated
them, what impressed them and what was effective and why. Talking
honestly, the editors gave their opinion. It is not all bad news.
Contrary to popular belief, journalists don't hate all PR people. Some
were harsh, but they all agreed that a bit of effort in the right places
would make their lives a lot easier, and subsequently make them more
receptive to what the PRO was trying to tell them.
Unfortunately, some of the things that they all complained about,
without exception, were the basics that any workshop on media relations
would aim to teach.
Perhaps most surprising was the amount of information or number of
releases that were sent without the PR person behind them really having
any idea about that publication or station's usual content or target
Know your audience is a PR basic but it seems that once the release or
mailout has been decided, the account executive is still sent onto
Mediadisk and told to compile the mailing list using a certain set of
But there are nuances between publications or stations that at first
glance might seem to cover the same things.
Even when the content is right, the editors were still amazed at the
number of releases that went to the wrong people. They all agreed that a
simple telephone call before sending would save a great deal of
Getting to the point early in a release is another common demand with
having to read through too many text-heavy pages being a common
And those sending by e-mail will have to perfect the art of the
one-liner - many of the editors who received e-mails admitted that they
only usually had time to look at the first line in the title and didn't
even open them.
But it's not all doom and gloom. Journalists still use releases and
really want to get a story from them if they can and want to speak to PR
people if they have something interesting to say. And they like it when
they are not made to feel like just one more person on the mailing list
- invites and freebies, for some reason, were the two things to catch
BRIDLINGTON FREE PRESS.
'One of the releases I received in my postbag this week came from an
association about educating children in rural matters. It's not very
long and is written in a very positive style. We aren't using it this
week but might refer to it at a later date for something else we're
doing,' says Bridlington Free Press editor Selwyn Dunford. 'We receive a
lot of press releases and are more likely to go through them if they are
one sheet rather than five.
'Then there's jargon. I received another release about the merger of two
companies that was full of financial jargon - unless you're a financial
journal it's better to have things in plain English.
'I also don't know whether PR people do their revision on geography when
they send stuff out to local papers because people seem to think that we
are interested in everything that happens on the north-east coast.
But local newspapers are very parochial, so a little research wouldn't
go amiss for example. We received a release in the form of a reader's
letter from the actor Robson Green. It was for a national charity and
not appropriate locally.
'Councils send out well-worded and researched press releases. I received
one mid-week about the date of a beer festival being changed to avoid it
clashing with the England qualifying match. We ran that story.
'One release made me laugh for the wrong reasons. It arrived on Tuesday
- the hottest day of the year - and started with the words: "Banish
'A press release I received this week was about a photographic service
that uses images in artificial environments, which is not relevant to
me. Another from a small software company invites me to meet its senior
sales director, not even its CEO. My question is " Why?"'says The Times
telecom correspondent Clive Mathieson.
'A lot of people aren't taking the time to see what we actually cover
and it would be better if they could take time to understand a bit more
about our agenda. People send things that are quite clearly, without
wishing to sound harsh, not going to be covered by the national press,
such as deals between two small software companies. All it takes is one
call to check first.
'In terms of e-mail releases, I don't think there is much difference
between them or the paper kind. It all depends how creative you want to
get with e-mails. Usually it isn't necessary as all it does is make the
file really big. One about the appointment of new directors at a telecom
company was used by me because it was to the point and relevant to what
I write about.'
'I like it when an e-mail press release is only addressed to me and I'm
a big fan of having a click to a website. That can be useful for things
such as big reports. I was sent one recently about broadband that was
300-pages big. If it had been sent as an Acrobat file, it would have
crashed my computer, but I could access it from the website
'I definitely prefer to receive releases by e-mail because faxes can get
lost between the machine and my desk. E-mails are also easier to
'There are various things about releases that annoy me. I am sent a lot
of attachments, which clog-up my in-box, and usually delete them
straight away. Another is when attachments arrive and they are just
marked 'press release'. You then have to open them, which can take up a
lot of time, which can then be totally wasted.
'It would be helpful if the press release could give the basic points at
the top, and at least say what company it is about.'
'Among the releases that landed on my desk this week were a couple that
were totally unsuitable. One was about a service for old people and the
other for a well-known brand of tea. If the PR people who sent these
really knew Femail, they would know that we don't cover either food or
the elderly. This sort of blanket mailing out doesn't work at all' says
the Daily Mail's Femail commissioning editor Sarah Bartley.
'Releases covering areas such as health can also be quite difficult to
use. One that I received today was bad in terms of its presentation. It
is all quite scientific subject matter and is written so densely, which
is not very helpful. If it had some bullet points in it, it would be
much better. I get about 15 of this type of thing every day, which would
be much more useful if they were presented better.
'Another release was sent to the wrong person but it had a really great
logo on it which caught my eye. It was on different colour and weight
paper from everything else so it really stood out.
'A very helpful thing for journalists is for press releases to have the
name of the company on the outside of the envelope as you immediately
have some idea of what you are going to get.
'The biggest waste of time I think PR people indulge in is getting
people's job titles wrong. A lot of mail is missed because of it. They
don't seem to try to contact us first to check who it is they should be
sending stuff to.
'I get far too many e-mails and often will delete them just after the
first paragraph. I had one recently which was about a report and it had
been sent to about 50 people. The thing is we had no idea what it was or
even who the people were that had sent it, so it became junk mail.
A quick phone call from the PR person before sending it would have
helped a lot.
'The quick phonecall is the key. The worst thing PROs will do is phone
you and say "is this a good time to talk" even if you say 'no' they will
then start pitching their story anyway.
'There are releases, such as one I was sent from a water company
recently, that just don't tell you anything.
It was basically telling me how to drink a glass of water and why it is
good for you.
'I suppose it is difficult if you haven't got a great product, but the
worlds of health, food, and fashion seem to be employing very junior
people who don't know how to pitch an idea.
'You can tell when they're on the phone that they are so terrified of
rejection that they can't think laterally about the subject. So they
just prattle on regardless, like a double glazing salesman.
'This week I've had an invite to the opening of a new lifestyle
The invitation card itself looks good and invitations are always useful
as you get to network.
'Some PR people tend to forget that we are looking for a story as much
as they want to sell one, so we're not saying "no" to their ideas just
to be difficult.'
95.8 Capital FM
'Before I delve into the mailbag, I have to say the most annoying
approach from PROs is the phonecall asking, "Do you want to attend our
photocall?" I politely remind press officers we are a radio station and
so pictures are pretty useless to us,' says 95.8 Capital FM news editor
'I know of one radio news editor working in London who does not mince
his words when he gets these calls!
'But that's on the phone. Often a lot of the mail I get is not relevant
to our audiences especially the 15 to 34-year-olds.
'Today, I received a press release about a gardening product promotion
at a London flower show.
The accompanying letter, which if I wasn't doing this piece would have
gone straight in the bin, starts: "With the garden exhibition season
well and truly upon us, it's hardly surprising we're all suffering from
aching feet after hours and often days spent walking around vast
venues." Not at London's Number One Hit Music Station we're not!
'I've got a few reports in the post, without accompanying press
We're a small team here with single journalists on the desk, writing and
reading for each station. We just don't have time to go through more
than a hundred pages of a report, no matter how important or
interesting. We need to see the most important facts, ideally on one
sheet of A4.
'We cover a massive patch so the "local" competition winner or what's on
event usually ends up in the bin. For example, the car breakdown rescue
worker from Morden who's been runner up in their 'Ambassador of the
Year' competition. Well done to him but in a two-minute maximum news
bulletin mixing world, national and London stories, it just isn't going
to make news.
'PR people should try to be sensitive to our audience, to our output and
to our own resources. I'm sure my colleagues in commercial radio around
the country would agree with these points.
'Best press releases today, and there's usually only two out of about 40
I get everyday that are any use at all, are from a university in the
Midlands and London Fire and Emergency Planning.
'The University has experimented on whether cows produce more milk if
they're listening to relaxing or rocky music. A quirky "and finally"
that's appropriate to music radio but also well presented. The details
took up one side of A4 with contacts listed on a second page.
'The release from the fire service announced, on two sheets of A4, stats
on arson. By the second paragraph, I'd learnt that 62 per cent of all
fires dealt with by the brigade in a year have been started
deliberately. A story with important implications relevant to the whole
of the capital.
'Finally, freebies! They can occasionally help a product get
Today, I was sent a Barbie doll dressed as a fan of boy band N-Sync,
together with her own backstage pass, T-shirt and poster.
'At first hand, I could see it was a cute idea and it's likely to make a
line in our entertainment news later - that's if it doesn't disappear
from my desk between now and then.'
'This week I got a press release from a train company for the launch of
new rolling stock that was done really well. The PR person phoned me
before sending it. When it arrived it had his name and number at the
top, then key points and told me who was available for interview. The
release was attached as a plain word document. Then he phoned me to see
if I had got it. We used the release.' says Sky News executive producer
'The same day I received a release from a consortium which just came as
an attachment with no indication of what it was about, which means you
have to open the attachment, which takes time.
'One of my biggest problems is that I get all of my press releases by
e-mail and, because there are so many, I sift them on the basis of what
the first line says. That first line is a new skill that PR people are
going to have to learn. If a press release is on paper journalists will
usually give it the benefit of the first paragraph at least.
'A new technique which more PR people should use is to personalise the
e-mail so it looks as though it has been sent to me alone. If you're
made to feel special then it is much more appealing and more and more
people are starting to do that. One from a regulatory body was sent to
hundreds of people and was just titled "press releases", though it's
potentially of interest.
'There is so much competition for PR people to get their stories covered
that they need to find the best way to get it through to me and that is
usually through having a personal relationship.
'Government offices always seem to send things twice and there are reams
of stuff you have to wade through. I received one from a government
department that was very dry and factual and made no attempt to angle it
to make an exciting story.
'I do ask for releases to be sent as e-mails as you can cut and paste
various bits into the news diary but the best way to do it is to phone
first and then e-mail and then phone again. It is also useful if the top
line is something that makes it easy for me to search for it when it
arrives. A good example is one I received on a technology company's
response to a regulator's ruling on a company.
The top line states exactly what the story is and I instantly know I'm
'Another from an industry body is written tantalisingly, opening with
the line "bombshell report ...". We're not running it, but I might file
it away or make a note of the organisation. Conversely, I received one
about an ongoing row between institutional investors that just has a
company name at the top. However, when you look at the content, it's a
'A lot of PR people have no idea about the requirements of TV - that
it's a visual medium and the logistics of going out, shooting, editing,
'The people who understand us always win. We always cover the big
stories and that's not usually PR people telling you about those. Good
PR people are realising that there are opportunities to piggyback on big
stories, rather than trying to get a little story covered which probably
won't make it anyway.
'We get lots of stuff from organisations wanting to react to events and
the smart ones realise that we just need a quote. Today I had a company
putting forward a guest who wanted to climb aboard a major story. Maybe
he doesn't know any more about it than other people but we'll probably
use him for the simple reason he's there.'