Business Management

Rant: Confessions of an ex-tech PR

I've been very lucky to be part of this business because tech journalists and PRs are a rare bunch. I've seemed to manage to build lasting friendships in both camps, with very different personalities. I've got drunk, I've got high and have had my fair share of good and bad experiences. I think I can see both sides now.

This article is about all the misconceptions, the fuss and the reality of working with media. It's also an occasion for me to share my experience as a tech PR in London and what I have seen.

For every PR, the tech journalist is viewed as a breed apart. Tech “journos”, as PRs call them, have the tendency to be overwhelmed 24 hours a day, not reply to emails and get frustrated very easily, even over small things - such as the resolution of a picture. They are also thorough in their work, very ethical and flexible when it comes to arranging a meeting with an array of execs, especially when a client's entourage comes over from the US en masse.

The biggest misunderstanding, however, is that journos hate PRs and act in an arrogant or abrasive manner on purpose. The truth is they hate the bad PRs, the ones who harass them over a product update and mess up their tickets for the press trip. Journalists are not arrogant on purpose but being constantly in demand means they need to take a pragmatic attitude to screen PR noise and calls. I think the ratio in the UK is now five PRs to one tech journalists - that’s a lot of calls. I can also understand journalists getting grumpy when your client fiddled with the results of a survey and the writer wants to get to the bottom of it.

But they are not always justified in their behaviour and some cross the line. I've seen last-minute cancellations of high-level meetings planned for months simply because a more interesting thing turned up. I’ve seen journalists fail to show up for press trips abroad with no excuse or threaten to write bad things about my client if I ever send an email again (yes, it happens). Others wanted to demonstrate their knowledge by slagging off my clients’ technology in detail, while some spent time drinking and socialising on press trips in the US and were unable to write a single article on the three-day conference paid for by the host (that one is the hardest to explain to a client). And my personal favourites are the ones who dissect my press releases bit by bit just to make me feel stupid, or lecture me for a good 15 minutes on why my profession should be banned from the world.

But there are also great moments of mutual trust. Such as journalists calling me when they hear rumours on my clients or that a competitor is making a push. Or kindly not including my client's stupid remarks in a profile article. Or keeping patient with me as I reschedule a trip abroad because of snow. I've always built the best relationships with those who understood that I was also doing a job and trying to help out too. Some journalists have been flexible and helpful, stepping in when an exec was coming for a last-minute trip to the country, to talk about Big Data and how the Generation Z is the most connected generation (for a change).

But when it goes wrong, it is because of a lack of trust and understanding. PRs don't understand journalists because they can't compute the fact that they receive 500 emails a day with very few interesting stories - so they won't prioritise the semi-re-launch of their boring client. And journos don't understand PRs because they think we're all the same bunch of excited and clueless posh boys and girls trying their best to ruin their day with uninteresting and badly researched story ideas.

The reality is that none of us is lazy, we're all hard working people pulling our weight to create and deliver interesting stories. But there are only so many hours in the day and only so many stories we can sell. The real problem arises when there's no trust, or where prejudice hampers a relationship from the outset.

Tech PRs and journalists should have a mutually beneficial relationship: like the shark and the cleaner fish. It doesn't matter which one you are or want to be, one has to understand and take advantage of the strengths of the other.

I have never been a tech journalist myself, but I have worked with nearly all of them in the UK.  I know the pressures are often felt equally on both sides. It's hard to get out 10 stories a day with so little time, in a world where technology is faster but not much more efficient. Hence every time I nailed writing a press release or story pitch, I was glad I could save the journalists some time with copying/pasting sections into their stories. By the way, that's why we still do press releases: to cut you some slack.

But all I really know is the agency side. And it’s a tough business juggling between extremely different stakeholders and their demands. I have had times when I refused to send a release because the story wasn’t good enough and then faced the consequences from the client. I have called you six times to confirm an exclusive story/press trip/drinks so you don't forget (like last time), and left you alone when I felt "the feeling wasn't mutual". I've seen great examples of high level-interviews at very large scale events on the other side of the world, organised in no time; a TV appearance confirmed a couple of hours before airing live; a two-week non-stop harassment of clients' legal departments to get that quote approved for your deadline; and emails sent to your boss to say how great you are.

I've seen bad things as well, clients pushing for a story or an idea to go out with no substance and us not being able to push back because we would be fired. There are many examples of times like this when we know it's a weak story and we know we have to call you anyway. We hate doing it, but the pressures are intense - and unfair on everybody. There have also been times when we pitched an exclusive face-to-face meeting with a CEO, hinting at some meaty details, but we knew that the exec was just here to talk about his company's UK restructuring. Or given you an interview with a customer whose answers and opinions were in fact limited to ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I’m sorry for that.

The point is, everyday PRs don’t go to work to take home Cannes Lions awards (the ‘PR Oscars’) and most journalists aren't lining up to win the Pulitzer. We are just human beings at the end of the day, the good and the "little children of God" as my grandmother puts it. We have to wake up and realise we are buying and selling slightly different takes of the same story. Most news isn’t new, but we sell it and write it anyway. But when a truly great story comes along - on either side - you need the trust in place to be able to make it a reality. And that’s the relationship we are investing in every day.


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Janis Vian

The pseudonymous Janis Vian worked in PR for a several years for a tech public relations agency

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