A freelance writer’s peeves about PR pros

Full-time journalists have had their say about what galls them. Here’s a fresh perspective about overpromising, hounding for coverage and grossly under-communicating realities to clients.

There are some brilliant public relations professionals.

They are such a godsend that I take all the pins out of my PR voodoo doll and lay her out on a sun lounger with a watermelon martini.

Then there are PR pros who inspire me to jam my voodoo doll’s head in the toilet.

This is a memo to the latter group.

There are perpetrators of minor misdemeanors, of course, who fall somewhere in between. Watch out for the following offenses and offenders:

  • Misspelling the name of your PR firm—especially if this flags the email as spam. “Hello from Fraud [sic] Communications” is one subject line I remember. Incidentally, I didn’t open it.
  • Then there’s telling me your fly-fishing accessories are perfect for Vice. I’ve received so many emails from PR pros keen to convince me their coffeemakers would work well for this title, that I’m certain nobody in PR has ever read Vice.
  • There are PR pros who send me press releases on a Saturday night. (I won’t open them.)
  • PR pros who promise me 20 minutes with their client, then cut me off after four.
  • PR pros who hound me to “confirm” the date of their coverage, as if each email will bring the issue out sooner.
  • PR pros who resurrect the same email chain to message to me, over several months and various subject matters. For the love of God, start new emails with new subject lines.

What are the felonies that push me over the edge? Here, let me offer some anecdotes.

1. Complaining without having read the copy.

On more than one occasion, I’ve sent across a PDF of the copy, and the PR contact has messaged back to express their disappointment.

“Such a shame the website credit wasn’t included,” and, “a pity there’s no mention of X client,” they say. At that point, I count up the mentions and email them back to point out there are several—usually more than agreed upon—as well as the website address.

It’s pretty galling when a PR pro writes off your efforts as worthless without even reading the piece properly.

Avoid the pitfall: Don’t be too hasty to send a dispiriting email, or next time you’ll get the minimum of mentions, and my PR voodoo doll will spend the night in one of my sweaty sneakers.

2. Not accepting the coverage agreed upon.

On one occasion, after a travel piece appeared online, the PR pro emailed to say she was wondering when it was going to run in print. On another occasion, after an interview was published with one title, the PR pro messaged me about a different title entirely: “I was wondering if X Magazine were running the interview—have they confirmed whether they’ll run parts of it? I know the interview was picked up by Y Magazine, which is great, but our client is asking whether X will publish it.”

In both these cases—and others—I scanned the emails. In the first scenario, the subject of print had never been agreed to; in the second, there had been no suggestion that the interview would appear in more than one title-and the name of the other magazine hadn’t come up once. If their client was genuinely expecting the interview to appear in a second magazine, it could only be because the PR pro had made false promises.

Avoid the pitfall: I’m crystal clear about what I can deliver, and I always keep email chains. Be sure to re-read the chain before asking questions you already know the answer to.

3. Failing to manage your clients.

I had a telephone interview scheduled with a person in the public eye. The PR contact had arranged it and had given me the client’s cellphone number. When I called, at 10 a.m., he didn’t know anything about it—and he didn’t sound too pleased. He told me he was on his way to the gym and would call me back between 11 and 11.30 a.m. He didn’t.

I called him at 11.45 a.m., and the call was disconnected. On a deadline to interview the guy, I sent him a text asking if he was available to talk that afternoon; I received no response. Eventually I got to speak to him, but having the client feel “door-stepped” isn’t the best start to an interview.

Avoid the pitfall: If your client has a telephone interview at 10 a.m., text them a reminder at 9:45 a.m. Remind them whom they’re speaking to, which publication it’s for, what the focus of the interview should be, and the number they should expect to see coming up on their phone. Do this and my PR voodoo doll gets a gin and tonic, a takeout menu and full control of the remote for two nights.

4. Trying to pin me down to coverage I can’t guarantee.

A PR professional recently got in touch about a U.S.-based celebrity doctor who was launching a range of products. Off the cuff, I suggested he’d be great for vox pops and asked her to let me know if he planned a trip to the U.K., where I’m based. The email chain that followed made me wish I’d never mentioned it. Here’s a condensed version:

PR pro: Could you let me know what you would require from him timewise, if you think you could definitely get coverage from it, etc.

Me: Let me know when the trip’s definite, and I’ll pitch the idea to editors. I can’t pitch anything until the trip is confirmed.

PR pro: Do you have in mind who you would be pitching to, so I can tell the client?

Me: I can’t consider this until the trip is confirmed. If you want to give the client a selection of titles I write for, feel free to do that.

PR pro: So I brief my client correctly, if it’s vox pops, does this mean it will be aimed at online rather than print? Or will there be photos that can be pitched to print?

Me: Vox pops were literally just an idea. I have not pitched it to any editor, so nothing is confirmed. Please do not brief your client that this is what he’ll be doing with me. If the trip is confirmed, I can look into it. There is absolutely nothing I can confirm at this stage.

Avoid the pitfall: Don’t set your client up for disappointment by briefing them on a media opportunity that hasn’t been confirmed. Please don’t chase me for coverage I can’t guarantee. If you chase me for coverage I can’t guarantee, my PR voodoo doll gains 200 pounds.

5. Complaining about the rest of the publication’s content.

I recently got a PR contact a 2,000-word interview for their client. With photographs, the piece spanned four pages, so it was a decent spread. On the fourth page, there was a cut-out box of about 300 words, written by someone with an alternative perspective. Instead of thanking me for the four-page spread, the PR pro emailed: “Wasn’t expecting the other guy’s opinion in there…”

As a freelancer, there’s no way I’d be consulted on the rest of the magazine’s content—besides which, it’s fairly standard for newspapers and magazines to attempt some sort of balance. It’s usually closer to 50/50, so their client got a great deal.

Avoid the pitfall: Appreciate the coverage you’ve got, instead of complaining about content the journalist has no control over. Try simply saying: “Thank you!” If you do, my PR voodoo doll gets her hair styled by Jennifer Aniston’s hairdresser and a date with Ryan Gosling.

6. Failing to deliver the promised photos.

I returned from a press trip and spent a week chasing the PR contact for the photos she’d promised. The feature was due to go live over the weekend, so Friday was the final deadline. I made one last plea for the shots, and I was told they were with the client—he had to approve them, but he was busy. My editor could only use the photos I’d taken, which of course didn’t have the client’s approval—so they’d acted against their own interests. You can read about a similar example of this here. Yep, I wrote about the battle for the photos in the copy-for Vice.

Avoid the pitfall: There are plenty of publications that want to include photographs but don’t have a budget for a photographer. If you’re given the opportunity to provide photos, make the most of it.

Samantha Rea is a freelance journalist living in London. She writes travel features for the vitamin D. A version of this article first appeared on Muck Rack, a service that enables you to find journalists to pitch, build media lists, get press alerts and create coverage reports with social media data.

Topics: PR

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