OPINION: Be wary of being cheery to journalists

In the days before computers and health and safety, the spike was a central feature of every newspaper and magazine office.

Monk: ‘Hence the return of the spike for the daily caeremonial impaling of scores of press releases’

A sharply pointed metal rod mounted on a wooden base, it was used to impale the typewritten stories of the day deemed sub-standard. The object created the derisory verb and every writer’s daily dread was to see his labours spiked.

Computers naturally created a less hazardous home for reject material and the spike disappeared along with hot metal and typewriters. But, the verb remains an integral part of the print vernacular.

I was told this week by a national newspaper news editor that he had reintroduced the physical object. His sole reason was the level of fury prompted by the vast amount of what he unkindly called ‘PR-crap’ flooding in. Simply marking such material ‘delete’ was felt insufficient to satisfy the physical need for a vaguely violent reaction to its utter uselessness.

Hence the return of the spike for the daily ceremonial impaling of scores of press release and other missives from our industry.

I relay his anecdote to make a point and perhaps soothe relations between his industry and ours. The average newspaper uses somewhere between 50 and 100 stories daily. The majority are not in any way PR-driven. Yet newspapers and magazines receive upwards of 1,000 press releases a day. More than half run beyond a single page. Those who must read and judge their merits – copytasters – are flooded minute by minute with a torrent of words from staff, wire reports, agency stories and readers’ emails.

In the midst of the deluge, a cheery email from one of our generally sunnier souls offering the profound hopes that an unknown journalist is ‘really well’ or has or is going to have a ‘wonderful weekend’ seems to cause undue offence. Apparently, when used as a preamble, it can even cause a prejudice against the best crafted and most newsworthy press release. Length of release, repetition and poor wording, or incomplete information are also calculated to add to the propensity of the rec­ipient to violence. Uncaptioned pictures, mis-spelt names also move PR material closer to instant impaling.

But the biggest complaint from those occasionally surly and cynical journalistic souls is the lack of story judgement demonstrated either by the rel­ease or its targeting. Brevity, accuracy, timing and news judgement are the best ways to avoid the spike. Smart PRs may want to introduce their own spike on which to store erroneous reporting of their clients’ affairs. It will be interesting to see which accumulates the most rubbish first.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and was formerly a senior newspaper executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun.

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