Avoiding PR fails: How to win friends and influence journalists

human-652827_960_720I recently sat down over an informal lunch with a large real estate group in their high-rise office.

It was an opportunity to meet some of their new team members at the start of the new year and make new contacts.

But it was also an opportunity for them to ask me questions about the how the newspaper business works and essentially explain how stories  – perhaps their own property deals – might end up in the paper I write for, the Australian Financial Review.

As we chatted over sandwiches, it occurred to me that I was answering many of the same questions I’d answered a number of times before at similar “meet the press’ type meetings and that it might be useful to others to summarise some of the things we discussed.

So here it goes, from the horse’s mouth: A journalist’s top tips for dealing with…journalists:

1. A short email or phone call is often better than sending a press release.

Every journalist is bombarded with media releases. Dozens appear in our email inboxes everyday and throughout the day. It’s impossible to carefully read every one and find the time to work on stories at the same time. A much better option is a short email outlining the story idea in a few dot points and a contact number for the journalist to ring to get more information.  If you are going to send a press release, keep it short and to the point. No journalist has the time to read an 8 page press release. Alternatively, pick up the phone and call, but not before you have read point 2 below.

2. Don’t ring a journalist when they are on deadline.

It’s incredible how many experienced PR consultants still ring journalists at my newspaper at 4 or 5 pm in the afternoon as we are frantically filing stories for the next day’s paper to pitch ideas or just to “chat”. There’s nothing more frustrating than having a conversion, even if for a few minutes about something that’s either irrelevant or can wait while you are trying to finish a story. Incredibly some people go on pitching stories even after you say you are on deadline .If you’re going to ring a journalist find out when the best time to call is. For those writing for newspapers, the morning is usually the best time to ring.  If you are going to ring on deadline, make sure it’s a REALLY, REALLY BIG story.

3. Think before you speak

Once you tell a journalist something, it cannot be untold or unremembered. (Think of us as bottomless receptacles of information rather than sieves). Before you call, think about what you are going to say and write down some key points. It’s amazing how many people ring journalists, provide all kinds of great insider information, slag off their competitors and then are amazed when these quotes appear in the newspaper the next day. The same goes for facts. If they are true and you tell us them, we will report them. (Of course journalists also love salacious people like this and…there are equally some people who love dishing it out, but just be prepared to see it in print the next day as a direct quote).

4. Exclusives are what we want

Exclusives are the life blood of journalists and newspapers. If you can offer a journalist an exclusive and it’s a worthy story, you are almost assured of getting a good run in the paper. However, there is nothing more annoying for a journalist to read the exact same story they have been pitched and are writing appear in another publication. Of course you are perfectly entitled to pitch your story at multiple publications but you should be upfront about that and let the journalist know that they don’t have the story to themselves.

5. Be patient

Even a good story may take a few days, even a few weeks to get a run. This may be because of space (in the case of a print publication) or resources (journalists are generally working on a number of stories and have to prioritize based on what their editor wants) or the type of story: for example rural stories may run on a certain day of the week.  A good story will always get a run. By all means follow-up on the story – NOT ON DEADLINE! – but don’t bombard journalists with multiple daily emails. If the story needs to run by a certain date, then let the journalist know. If they can’t meet that date, then you are perfectly entitled to take the story elsewhere, but tell them first if you want to keep a good relationship.

6. Expect journos to quote you accurately but don’t expect a certain type of story

Journalists that deliberately misquote or take remarks out of context are to be avoided. Mistakes do happen. However, good writers don’t simply regurgitate press releases verbatim. Remember we are story tellers and are writing for our readers – not for you or your clients. Often those two audiences will overlap, but not always. Sometimes a passing comment or a small point may have greater and wider resonance – in the eyes of the journalist or their editor – then the main subject of a press release or briefing. Have an open mind about what you might read in the paper or online.

7. Don’t pester a journalist’s colleagues with the same story

Most journalists work in a team, whether it’s a specific beat like politics or property or the arts. We often sit together and discuss story ideas. It’s amazing how often a PR firm will contact a journalist with a story idea that doesn’t get traction and then ring all their colleagues with the same idea. This is not a great strategy. It smacks of desperation. If you really think a journalist is missing a good story my suggestion is to ring them and ask them why they won’t cover it. If you still think it has legs tell them you will contact their editor to pitch the story or a colleague, but don’t just send it out – scatter-gun style – to all and sundry.

8. Don’t give misleading information

This may seem an obvious one, but it’s quite common for someone to embellish a story idea or even a formal press release with inaccurate information, half-truths or outdated information to generate interest. Good journalists will verify facts, but we expect to be given accurate information in the first instance especially if its in a formal media release. If you are not sure, then say so. Being deliberately misleading is the quickest way to get you on a journalist’s blacklist.

9. Share market intelligence to build rapport

A great way to build a relationship with a journalist is to share information you have about the market and what your competitors are doing “off-the record” (see point 10). This may not get your name in the paper, but will help when you pitch your own story idea. Journalists treasure market tip-offs as much as they do exclusives.

10. Understand what “off-the-record” means

A lot of people I think have misconceptions about what it means when you tell a journalist: “This is off-the-record”. This does not mean that a fact or tidbit won’t be reported. All it means that if it is reported, it will not be attributed to you. Either it will be stated as a fact or something along the lines of “market sources said” or “people close to the deal said”. One thing I would stress is be wary of sharing information off-the-record that could only conceivably come from you. (See point 3 again). That always ends badly – for you, not the journalist.

11. Don’t pick fights with journalists

Of all the idiotic things President Donald Trump has done, one of the silliest has been to pick fights with the main stream media. It’s incredible that he has gone to war with some of the most respected global publications like The New York Times, Washington Post and CNN which have huge audiences. Pick up the phone if you are unhappy with a story, don’t send a ranting email or abusive text message – we have thick skins and long memories.

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Australia: a backwards country, going further backwards

Devolution_zps5c30acaaLast weekend, whilst driving in the Melbourne northern burbs, my wife’s phone rang.

It was friends of ours, recently back from a holiday in Europe and they had big news. They had gotten engaged in Paris.

They had been together for a number of years and we were delighted to hear they had tied the knot.

But then the realisation struck home that they cannot legally marry in this country, because Australia does not allow gay marriage –  they are a lesbian couple.

For a very brief period in December last year, it was legal for gay couples to wed in the ACT. Rather than embrace this bold move forward, the Commonwealth government successfully appealed the territory laws that had been in force for less than a week. No sooner were  gay couples saying “I do” then their marriage certificates were being gleefully stomped upon by conservative bureacrats.

This is the country we live in.

These are 17 countries where gay marriage is legal with Scotland the latest to the join the list of enlightened nations earlier this year.

First to allow gay marriage was Holland way back in 2000, the others are: England (2013), Wales (2013), France (2013), New Zealand (2013), Uruguay (2013), Denmark (2012), Argentina (2010), Portugal (2010), Iceland (2010), Sweden (2009), Norway (2009), South Africa (2006), Spain (2005), Canada (2005) and Belgium (2003).

Yes, even the country of my birth, South Africa, a developing country with many social issues, has recognised that people of the same-sex have the legal right to become husband and wife, but not in Australia. Prime minister Tony Abbott is vehemently opposed to gay marriage despite, his own sister Virginia being in a gay relationship.

Asylum seekers

This is not an isolated backwards step, Australia is moving backwards in many disturbing and insidious ways.

Our foreign minister, Scott Morrison recently drank champagne with his Cambodian colleagues after agreeing to send refugees that arrive by boat to Cambodia in a grubby “cash for people” deal that treats people like livestock.

Cambodia, one of the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world will take Australia’s unwanted refugees who are already living in secret squalor on the impoverished island of Nauru.

What will Cambodia get out of this – $40 million and the promise of more money if they take more people. At the same time, Australia has washed its hands clean of its commitment to provide a safe haven for genuine refugees in what Amnesty International has labelled “a new low in Australia’s deplorable and inhumane treatment of asylum seekers”.

This is just the tip of the iceberg: The 2014-15 Federal Budget, the first under Joe Hockey, cut Australia’s refugee and humanitarian program from 20,000 to 13,750 places and reduced its aid spending by $7.6 billion over five years.

Free speech squashed

Rather than enshrine freedom of speech as he had promised in opposition, Tony Abbott has done the opposite.

Journalists and bloggers now face up to 10 years in jail for doing their jobs, providing information about the secret activities of government organisations, even if their stories are in the public’s interest.  This is not all, the new national security laws also make it easier for security agencies to access personal computers and spy on Australians overseas, the very violations of individual privacy, that NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed were happening on an industrial scale in the US, UK and Australia.

And while the government eventually backed away from moves by attorney General George Brandis’s love-child – plans to water down protections under the Racial Discrimination Act that would have made Australia a protected haven for Holocaust deniers and racists (legal to offend, insult, humiliate someone based on their race or ethnicity), the fact that they were drafted in the first place, speaks volumes about our retreat from enlightenment.

Other backwards movements

These are but three examples, there are many more:

Savage reductions in funding for impoverished aboriginal communities, scrapping of the two-year carbon tax, which actually worked to reduce carbon emissions  in exchange for support for the coal industry, money pulled from the national broadcaster the ABC forcing the likely cancellation of important investigative journalism programs, a $7 GP co-payment that will hurt the poorest in society. The list goes on.

It’s a depressing state of affairs for those who cherish Australia as a forward-thinking, first-world nation, that values multi-culturalism, basic human decency and a “fair go”.

As for my gay friends who are now engaged,  there’s always New Zealand as a wedding option – a country that’s not just beating us at rugby.

For a far more erudite article on Tony Abbott and his government, read David Marr’s excellent article in The Monthly here.

Your word is your worth: why journalists shouldn’t write for free

6861197374_17a9d96b5eAbout six years ago, having been made redundant from a role in Brisbane I applied for a number of journalism jobs in Sydney.

One of these was to write for Lawyer’s Weekly. Part of the application process was to write an article for the publication about the implementation of Basel 2 banking reforms on the legal profession (Yes, a very dry topic I know). I spent a great deal of time researching the topic and did a number of interviews before filing a story.

For whatever reason, I never got the job. However the editor at the time – a fidgety Englishman – said Lawyer’s Weekly would publish my article and pay me $100 or thereabouts for my 1,500 word story – or less than 10 cents a word.

I was outraged. I remember I wrote an angry email to the editor, demanding better compensation for my time and effort. He refused to budge. I later received a copy of the edition of the trade mag with my article splashed across two pages and a check for $1o0. It didn’t seem like a fair trade.

I sold the very same article (slightly re-jigged) to an education group I was doing freelance work for at the time, Tribeca Learning (now part of the Kaplan professional training group) for about $1,500 and gave Lawyer’s Weekly the one-fingered salute (figuratively).

It was immensely satisfying.

The issue of journalists, writers and photographers not being paid for their work has come to the boil over the past few weeks in a series of exchanges between my current employer (Fairfax) and former employer (Private Media).

Fairfax’s The Age newspaper had highlighted that Private Media does not pay bloggers for their posts on subscription news and analysis website Crikey and that it had no contributor budget for arts website  offshoot the Daily Review. Instead, it rewards bloggers on a system based on the number of hits the post receives. (I should point out that contributors and those commissioned to write for Crikey are paid, but the rate is to my understanding, pitiful).

The Age’s Ben Butler explained the pay per hits policy for Crikey bloggers:

Blog entries that get 25,000 page views a month earned a ”bonus” of $193.50, those with 50,000 hits $387 and so on, with the system topping out at $4000 for a post ticking past the 500,000 mark.

Critics of the policy included freelance writer Byron Bache who launched an online protest on his blog supported by a number of writers, including former Crikey journalist Amber Jamieson. Bache wrote:

It is ethically reprehensible for a company to expand and actually stop paying the people who produce its product. A company which asks its readers to pay for content doesn’t feel the same obligation when it comes to its writers.

He also pointed out that the Daily Review’s two full-time staff were being paid a reported $100,000+ a year and that it was a distinctly commercial venture i.e. one designed to make a profit and provide a return to shareholders in Private Media.

I should point out that Crikey is a terrific and valuable website with about 18,000 paying subscribers. Blogs are not behind the paywall so readership could in theory be quite high. However, I would argue that few if any stories have ever reached anywhere near 500,000 hits to secure the $4,000 payment and that even reaching 50,000 hits ($387) would mark an article or blog as incredibly successful. So the possibility of getting paid anything meaningful is virtually zero.

The feud between The Age and Crikey/The Daily Review played out over a number of days in The Age’s gossipy CBD column with headings like “Putting the free back into freelance”,  and “Crikey! Writers want to get paid”.

In response, Crikey decided it should publish an explanation of its editorial policies under the rather mushy heading “three cheers for our writers” with an “unreserved apology” for not being open about it’s payment policy plus a link to this policy.

A few days later, Bethanie Blanchard, a Crikey literary blogger, wrote what was clearly a difficult column for her  in the Sunday Age (but for which she was paid for) criticising the Daily Review for not paying freelance writers for what is a commercial venture.

Blanchard admitted that it was “deeply troubling personally to criticise a company we [freelancers] have been incredibly proud to write for” but that there were places were writers could and should write for free to test themselves and fail, such as student newspapers, street press and emerging journals, but not the Daily Review, a “commercial venture”.

I should at this point own up.  I have in fact written for Crikey for free on a number of occasions and happily did so. I never thought to ask for payment since I was a fairly well-paid full-time member of Private Media’s staff and nor did I expect it. I was just pleased to appear in a publication I highly respect (I should also mention that I was paid very fairly for a series of ebooks I wrote for Property Observer outside of work hours).

But writing for Crikey for free was my choice. I certainly wasn’t asked to do so.

It’s a different story if writer’s are approached to contribute to a publication and expected to work for nothing beyond the euphemistic “exposure” or for the possibility of payment if they reach an impossible readership target.

The ABC’s Media Watch highlighted the offer of ‘exposure rather than payment’ recently in an excellent expose on Tennis Australia inviting freelance photographers to take photos of tennis players ahead of the Australian Open without payment in what is a $200 million revenue generating enterprise, paying $33 million in prize money at the Grand Slam event.

Another publication under fire is ‘mommy blogging’ website Mamamia which does not pay bloggers or anyone apart from a handful of its staff, but which appears to be a highly successful commercial venture given the high media profile of founder Mia Freedman.

mamamia

Let’s be clear. Offering ‘exposure’ is fine for people who are marketing themselves and for whom journalism is not their bread and butter. There are many people who will happily write for free such as mortgage brokers, investment gurus, entreprenuers and real estate agents with their columns serving as a free advertisements.

But if you’re a journalist, photographer or artist who values their craft, you should expect to be compensated fairly for your efforts.

It is also understandable that as the newspaper and publishing industry undergoes its biggest upheaval since the invention of the printing press that new ventures should look to cut costs where possible and stay lean and nimble.

But it is unacceptable to expect people who spend many hours researching, interviewing and crafting stories and who have families to support and mortgages to pay to expect nothing in return but a pat on the back.

Prize-winning author Anna Funder has also weighed into the debate, likening wealthy media companies expecting her to work for nothing but “exposure ” as to suggest she is “running some sort of porn site”.

“That’s a very quick race to the bottom,” she told the first national writers’ congress.

Like everybody else in society, we are doing something useful, something that has value. It has a kind of political value of speaking truth to power, it has an aesthetic value of giving pleasure and delight. And we deserve to be paid. We also deserve to be able to function in the world as human beings with children and mortgages – and they cost money.

Here, here! I say.