Trading places: just for one day…

In the spirit of fostering greater empathy between PROs and journalists, PRWeek and Rainier PR spent a day on each other’s beat

All PR practitioners will have stories about their occasionally fraught relationships with journalists – and vice versa. But whether it is journalists' incredulity at 'promised' interviews that never materialise, or PROs' disbelief that interviewed clients have not been
quoted, much of this friction can be attributed to ignorance of the pressures faced by 'the other side'.

So PRWeek decided to conduct a job-swap experiment – asking one of its reporters to taste life as a harassed agency PRO for the day, with said PRO stepping into the shoes of the reporter at the start of a busy news week.

Reporter David Quainton was the guinea pig chosen to infiltrate B2B technology and consumer agency Rainier PR, based on London's trendy Carnaby Street.

Meanwhile, Rainier senior PR consultant Stuart Marks (who had no experience of working in a newsroom) joined the PRWeek editorial team in Hammersmith to gather information and write news stories.

As David left the office, claiming that 'any journalist could be a PRO', Stuart arrived, desperate to get stuck into life as a hack.

The duo take up the story of their day on the other side...

David Quainton

Brief CV

I joined PRWeek as a reporter last year, having spent 12 months on a computer security magazine. I graduated from Swansea University with a degree in history, and have a postgraduate qualification
in journalism .

I am responsible for sourcing and writing news stories, analyses and features.

What did you learn?
* Don't expect the world from PROs – they can only know so much.
* PROs are just as busy as I am and are only doing their job. It is easy to forget, when being a journalist, that the PRO's day doesn't revolve around you.
* There is no reason to write a bad press release, despite the swathes of impenetrable guff that spins into my inbox every day. 
* Some of my peers can be very rude and dismissive to PROs – perhaps they need some PR training. However, it is easy as a PRO to forget what a journalist wants because you are so focused on your
client's products. Perhaps PROs need some journalism training.
* Lunchtime is sacrosanct.
* I don't want to be a PRO.

Stuart Marks

Brief CV

I currently work at Rainier PR and have six years' experience working for UK and pan-European technology clients. I graduated from Bournemouth University with a degree in PR.

As senior consultant at Rainier, I am responsible for the PR programmes of Informatica, NextiraOne and Smoothwall.

What did you learn?
* The stock phrase 'it's in the press release' became the bane of my day. Journalists want much more. 
* The key is to think like a journalist and be armed with the information the journalist wants to know. PROs should brief clients from the journalist's point of view, not just their own.
* PROs would be better at their job if they had journalism experience. I learned quickly that press releases and news stories share common themes. Both have primary information as high up as possible, with background info further down.
* Some of my peers are very bad at their job. Being a journalist for a day has sharpened my writing; it taught me more in one day than I'd learn in ten days on a course.
* I don't want to be a journalist.

DAVID: I arrive at Rainier for the morning meeting, furnished with doughnuts and coffee. The week's agenda is discussed, a run-through of who's doing what and the various benefits of Rainier running its own pub quiz. Other work for that day,  which does not involve liaising directly with journalists,  is also agreed – for me, that means writing the one thing I've seen thousands of times, often to my displeasure – the good old press release.

A good press release is a rarity, but I begin to realise that PROs rely on the quality of their client's product and the information given to them. My release – a survey by a software company on how marketing reports are shown to the board – is destined for the newswires (the least fussy recipients of press releases). After some poor efforts, Rainier seem pleased with my third attempt, which is like a news article: snappy and to the point.

STUART: It's Thursday, the day after PRWeek goes to press, but I was mistaken if I thought I was in for an easy day. I'm keen as mustard to prove I know how news gathering happens from my side of the fence, but straight away I hit the brick wall that is the unhelpful PRO.

I've not been acting as a journalist for long and it is surprising just how bad some of my peers are: they don't understand what news  is. I get the feeling that over-suspicious, or junior, PROs will often withhold innocuous information for fear of saying something
that is not on the formal release –  it is so frustrating. I'm only after minor details, but these are what the news editor requires to hang the story together.

DAVID: After pitching a pub quiz to some journalist contacts, I'm beginning to feel like a seasoned PR consultant. But my triumph is short-lived – my next task is to pitch a reader competition (to design the casing for a Toshiba hard drive) to men's magazines.
I gather all the information needed to understand the products, and reach for the phone, but my methodology has been far too time-consuming. I was supposed to have come up with some ideas straight away and am subsequently told that I have run out of time. I didn't realise these guys have to turn things around so quickly.

STUART: I'm desk-bound, taking leads from the other reporters. So much of the magazine's content is generated without press releases, but this still needs PR support – i.e., why is this person leaving? Who will be hired?

I'm beginning to see that we need to work hard to prepare company chairmen and make them realise that as well as wanting to talk about, say, a new widget,journalists are likely to need information about staff comings and goings.

DAVID: I receive news that Stuart has been sampling the delights of Hammersmith's finest office-delivery sandwich man. I, however, am escorted to a rather nice pub just around the corner from Rainier's offices.

Our lunch lasts the sunny side of an hour, but each member of the team individually takes me aside to whisper: 'We don't usually have lunches this long. We work very hard.'

STUART: Still desk-bound, I've just finished my first news story. There is no hanging around: deadlines arrive hourly, and I can see how journalists go mad when they get delayed. I need a couple of rewrites to get the structure of the story correct, but I'm swiftly told to begin a new one.

However, I'm hitting my stride and get approval from section editor and editor. This makes all the hard work worthwhile.

DAVID: A briefing with Rainier director Emily Farrell highlights a major difference between PR and journalism. When a reporter knows little about a subject, he asks questions – but PROs must be all-knowledgeable.

Farrell's knowledge is obvious as she takes me through a story I have to pitch about a mobile phone service used by the BBC for Football Focus. PROs with inadequate knowledge of their clients are easily picked apart, and I feel like a charlatan when I hit the phones again. The journalists naturally aren't interested in our client's six-month-old survey, but I bite my tongue.

Next, I write an article to carry the byline of  a company boss. I am dubious about its usefulness, but some magazines do accept them.

STUART: As most office workers are thinking about going home, I'm trying to get better quotes out of some PR managers for an upcoming feature passed to me by the section editor. I sympathise with him, as the current quotes are clearly a bit puffy. Getting good quotes sounds easy – it isn't.

For a PRO, voicemail is arguably the world's greatest invention. For a journalist, it could be the worst. For 45 minutes I try in vain to reach my targets. Why are interviewees never around when you need them? Another example of a journalist's frustrations.

DAVID: My last task of the day is to rewrite poorly edited profiles of a company's board members for its website (sample text: 'Priory to his current role...').

This highlights the diverse nature of a PRO's day and how he is often required to weave a silk purse from the proverbial sow's ear. It also reinforces my impression that CEOs who think they know how to write often don't – and I'm glad I'm not the PRO who has to tell them this.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in