Tuesday, 15 May 2012

How PR structures send a message

There I was, having a standard moan on Twitter about PR things that annoy me, when along came this tweet:
Well, firstly, I'm a great believer in that division. We hacks shouldn't be too cosy with flacks, otherwise the whole thing becomes corrupt and the readers (my main concern, always) are not being served.

But Max is a nice chap and this is a good opportunity to better explain my complaints, which were: I won't name names, but both whinges were to do with delayed responses. And neither situation was really something the relevant PRs had any control over. My issue is with the PRs' clients.

The first case was pretty straightforward – I asked a question and got a late and very bullshitty answer that didn't actually address what I was asking. Not much can be done about that, other than to point out the irrelevance of the reply and suggest that a "no comment" may have come across as a little less insulting.

But the second case was symptomatic of a wider problem. As a tech journalist, few things are more frustrating than dealing with a company that has multiple PR operations – one for this department, one for that, some in-house, some with agencies. There often appears to be little communication between these various operations, which are sometimes run by rivals.

The result is massive inefficiency. It's bad for me as a journalist, because my request will often take ages to reach the right person, let alone get an answer (my specific complaint today was about the person I originally contacted not letting me know that they were forwarding it on, which would lead to a delay – I know that most good PRs do offer this courtesy).

And it's bad for the company. After all, the PR's job is to try to manage the client's message, which means reacting quickly. Like most hacks, I want to give the company a fair chance to respond to whatever it is the story is about. If I don't get a timely response, there's not a lot I can do about it - in most circumstances, I need to get my story up, response or no response.

Companies don't seem to realise that their choice of PR set-up sends a message in itself.

I can think of one megacorp that used to offer a centralised PR team that was incredibly helpful. This gave hacks the impression that the company itself was open and honest, and that informed the tone of the coverage.

But then Megacorp split its PR operation up into an unholy in-house/agency mix. All journalist requests now get passed around like the proverbial parcel and nobody informed or useful is ever on-hand to explain what the firm's doing. The impression we get is that of barriers having been set up, and it's hard not to translate that into "this company has changed and is now acting like it has something to hide".

That's not to say that agencies don't have their place – clearly they do, especially for clients for whom a dedicated in-house team in the UK makes no sense. But, in this increasingly fast-paced business, inefficiency just won't do, particularly if it comes across as a deliberate tactic.

All of which brings me back to the point that the PRs themselves are not to blame here. The problem is the PR structure their client has chosen, deliberately or otherwise. And I'm not sure who to complain to about that.