NEWS ANALYSIS: Just why we 'get along so awfully'

Journalists and PR people have a long history of mutual antipathy. So how can the two sides achieve a better mix of harmony and understanding?

It's rare that I get inspired by a Depêche Mode song. But this rare thing happened in the car the other day when an old hit from that bunch of 1980s techno-worriers came on. It was the one with the words ‘People are people, so why should it be/You and I should get along so awfully?'

The scansion is rubbish and the lyric isn't exactly Cole Porter. Yet the sentiment is spot-on for this piece, and the phenomenon I'm writing about.

Journalists and PRs are people. They have a lot in common and they're often after the same thing. So why should it be they get on so awfully? I can hear already the dissenting cries loud and clear from this side of the glossy page.

Yes, I know some of your best friends are journalists. Yes, I know you can cite a hundred examples of smooth, intelligent co-operation between the two ­estates, journalism and PR. Yes, we've moved on from the old class-warfare days.

But tell the truth: if you counted the number of swearwords directed by your staff at the journalistic profession during the average week, you'd have a tally that would make a Channel Four controller blush. And the same goes for the other side.

So I've been doing a bit of peacemaking. I don't expect the Nobel committee to sit up and take notice just yet. But I believe there are ways of getting a little more profitable co-operation between journos and PRs.

This isn't pure altruism. I'm all for being frank about your agenda upfront, something neither group, in common with telesales people, is always particularly good at.

So here is the agenda: I want to spread a little goodwill, sure - and earn some good training fees from so doing.

The mission began at Salt, a small and whizzy agency in south west London. The boss man, Andrew Last, threw me to a pack of his Bright Young Things (BYTs) who had all had, shall we say, issues with the noble practice of journalism over the years.

We began by having a mutual therapy session which took the form of a rant. They told me everything that irritated them about journalists and I told them everything that drove me mad about PROs. The air turned an interesting colour for a few minutes.

I'll summarise the worst of the invective. They think we (the journos) are ignorant, rude, evasive and don't keep our word. We think they (the PRs) are dozy, ill-briefed, time-wasting and rarely seem to have read/watched/listened to the medium that employs us.

The BYTs knew their market, knew their clients and had worked up some interesting angles. But they knew a lot less about the media they are targeting and, specifically, the pressures the journalists there are under. I reckon the best way to dramatise those pressures is to play a game called ‘Doing Conference'.

Conference is where the big decisions are taken on newspapers and getting together your list for conference, with fewer and fewer staff and less and less time, is where the real stress lies.

There are more or less intense versions of conference throughout the ­editorial media (one lads' mag editor I know calls it simply ‘the pub'). But they're always crucial and the way you perform in conference is as, and in some cases more, important than what actually appears. The power of conference is vividly shown in the spectacular new newsroom at The Telegraph.

The round conference table is in the centre of the floor and the executives' desks fan out in spokes from the table - the closer you sit to it the more important you are.

It's a theatrical setting for a theatrical event. The participants have to perform; and if you think pitching for new clients is stressful, try doing it to a bored, impatient editor with toothache in front of a bunch of colleagues who, sad to say, do not always glory in your triumphs and sympathise with your failures.

One editor's conferences are known as ‘The Vagina Monologues', such is his fondness for the c-word. You get the idea. So I played nasty editor and the Salt people pitched. And something interesting happened. I'd gone in expecting to do a fatherly masterclass in how to have good ideas, and spin and push them once you've had them.

In fact, the quality of the ­ideas was damn good. We filled the paper more quickly than I remember ever doing it for real. ‘Now try doing it every day,' I said grouchily. But the evidence from the Salt lot, and from practical experience being on the other end of some very skilful PR over the years, is that people are pretty good at taking a client brief and wringing a story idea from it.

So what goes wrong? It's knowing who to pitch to, when to reach them, what kind of ideas grab them and, crucially, what pressures that person is ­under - especially as conference, ideas meeting, the pub, whatever, looms.

Those pressures are worse than ever as more journalists' jobs and editorial budgets are cut; hence a rise in the ­ignorance, rudeness and so on that you get from them.

Conversely, give them an idea they can use at a time they can use it and you might see their manners miraculously improve (most, after all, were well brought up children who have just gone a bit wrong along the way). The trick is to get inside information about how different newsrooms and features desks work.

There's a whole lot of top current journos I know who will share that information. I won't go as far as saying they're on the same side as you.

But getting on awfully with PRs is about as much use to them as, well, an old Depêche Mode song.




Mark Jones (above) has edited Campaign, High Life and the Evening Standard features pages and is part-time editorial director of Cedar Communications. His training course, How Ideas Get Through, is about to launch with a galaxy of senior journalists from a range of backgrounds. For more information, contact him on mjoneswords@yahoo.co.uk.

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