With one City diarist finding 'the sacked PRO of more use than the current PRO', Ian Hall asks whether PR professionals should steer clear of the City diaries.
City diaries are among the best-read columns in the business pages, their easy-to-digest snippets often providing more talking points than orthodox news pieces.
But given that their raison d'etre is to amuse, frequently making sly digs at high-profile figures' misfortunes en route, it is understandable that they are seen - both by the journalists who edit them and PROs themselves - as a risky and thus underused channel to raise a client's case or profile.
With the most respected diaries typified by scathing or pithy sign-offs, it is a confident PRO who will tout a story to a diary editor.
Neil Bennett, the incoming managing partner at The Maitland Consultancy who was formerly City editor at The Sunday Telegraph, says: 'PROs should approach these columns with caution - most pieces have a sting in the tail.'
Need for a sense of humour
Bennett, no stranger to editing City diaries and appearing in them, adds: 'They are tremendously difficult to write - most of what happens in the City is not amusing. Banking is not the new rock-'n'-roll.' As to what sort of story he would consider pitching to a City diary editor, he says: 'Only do it if the client has a sense of humour.'
PR agencies have been quick off the mark to notice last week's launch of the City Spy column in London's Evening Standard.
City editor Chris Blackhurst tells PRWeek: 'I've just got a story (from an agency) whose client has done an interesting survey. We may well use that.'
But he warns: 'What City Spy is not is one of those diaries that just records people's appointments or puff pieces. But it's not a pure diary - it's a mix.'
So who should PROs target, what makes a good City diary story and is there a growing appetite for the wry snippets contained therein?
Many of the City diaries publish the column and editor's contact details alongside; if not, they tend to be overseen by the City editor with the pieces written by City correspondents. Adam Jay, who edits The Guardian's City diary and formerly held the same role at The Daily Telegraph, says: 'So long as it's vaguely amusing, I'll write about anyone - as long as it's City-related.'
The Daily Telegraph City Diary editor Simon Goodley is frustrated by many PROs' lack of understanding of what makes a good City diary piece.
He explains: 'My very rough rule of thumb is that if you'd tell the story or make the observation to a friend or a colleague when you're in the pub, then it might be a diary story.'
The Times's City Diary editor Martin Waller is scathing about many calls he receives from PROs, saying: 'Diaries are not really designed for PROs.
If it's a call about their client then it's usually too benign for me to do something with.'
Reflecting the extent to which the best diary columns are the abode of raillery and not promotional tidbits, Waller says: 'I generally find the sacked former PRO of more use than the current PRO.'
On the other hand, Daily Express deputy City editor Peter Cunliffe is more positive about the involvement PROs can have in Blackfriar, his paper's City diary, saying: 'The City diary is very well read and PR companies don't always see that.'
Damien McCrystal, the diary columnist made redundant from the Evening Standard last month, says it tends to only be senior PROs who contact the City diaries because 'juniors are too scared'. Pointing out that the diaries are not the best place to pitch what he calls 'vanilla' stories - straight pieces about, say, a firm's new CEO or results - that have failed to catch the business news editor's eye, he says: 'Diary stories will be written in a personalised style - the writer will be looking to put a bit of a spike in it, to make it catty.'
And what about those PROs who themselves - by design or accident - appear in the columns? McCrystal says: 'If there's a funny or intriguing story about PR people, it may well be run - PROs are as much a part of the City as stockbrokers and they can have more influence than some analysts.'
Fleishman-Hillard UK managing director Kevin Bell believes City diaries have generally become 'more significant' in the past few years.
'They previously focused on the Square Mile but now items seem to move from the main diary section into the business diary,' Bell argues. He adds: 'PROs often forget about the City diaries - when they think diary stories, they think of the centre pages, not the business sections.'
The hacks themselves certainly welcome useable tips. Goodley points out: 'I'd rather the phone was ringing than not at all. You can't have too many sources of information.'
PROs take note - but those with a sense-of-humour bypass steer clear.
CITY DIARISTS AT THE DAILIES
- Evening Standard - City Spy
Editor: Chris Blackhurst
Contact: 020 7938 6902
- Financial Times - Observer
Editor: Andy Bounds Contact: 020 7873 4760
- The Times - City Diary
Editor: Martin Waller
Contact: 020 7782 5000
- The Daily Telegraph - City Diary
Editor: Simon Goodley
Contact: 020 7538 7964
- Daily Express - Blackfriar
Editor: Stephen Kahn
Contact: 020 7922 7162
- The Guardian - City diary
Editor: Adam Jay
Contact: 020 7278 2332
The Daily Mail and The Independent do not carry City diaries