The media has to stop letting PR set the agenda
PR has to tell the difference between being persistent and being pesky
THERE is a strange symbiotic-parasitic relationship between public relations (PR) people and the media: It is at times adversarial; at other times, co-operative or complementary; and sometimes, there is hardly any difference at all.
I speak from the perspective of a technology journalist, of course, a trade I’ve spent too many years in; first as a journalist with The Star’s technology pullout, formerly known as In.Tech, and now with Digital News Asia.
I have no illusions: Most PR people hate me, though being good PR people they couch it in friendlier terms such as “respect.”
I have had so many run-ins with pesky and pushy PR people over the years that when, in 2010, I left journalism to take over the PR position at Microsoft Malaysia, some must have rubbed their hands in glee, thinking “Now he’ll know what we go through; he’ll get his comeuppance alright!”
Well, yes and no. Sorry, people, there was no “Oh my god, how wrong I’ve been” moment. Indeed, my short-lived experience in PR only sharpened my thoughts and feelings from over the years into some unassailable truths (in my mind, at least).
The first was that I am not cut out for PR. (And if those gleeful practitioners above think they have an “ah-ha” against me, I should immodestly point out that in my 20 months there, some of the PR initiatives I was behind or part of have garnered regional awards at Microsoft — though I will be honest enough to add I had the good fortune of working with some great teams too).
The second was that while I have some newfound respect for some of the hard and innovative work good PR practitioners put in, there is still a yawning chasm when it comes to understanding the media.
The third was that the media has to take some of the blame for this. There are just too many journalists who are happy to take the easy way out (and not just in the technology and business fields), that they have allowed PR people to set the agenda.
Don’t get me wrong — a PR campaign may be so well-crafted that even a veteran journalist may admit it’s such a great angle that there is no need to change it, and just focus on the details.
But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try. You should know your readers better than those PR folk, after all.
The fourth was that there are still too few PR practitioners who understand that different media, even within the small technology media circle we have here in Malaysia, have different editorial directions and readerships. Fail to understand that, and you will fail your client (if you’re in an agency) or your employer (if you’re the in-house PR guy).
Fifth: Persistence pays, whether you’re in the media or in PR. Years ago, as the editor of In.Tech, I wrote a commentary piece titled “Private thoughts about public relations,” and my views on the matter haven’t changed much since: Push for your client.
Yeah, pesky and pushy PR people annoy me at times. Deal with it.
But I have always had tremendous respect for those who take my “no, not interested” as feedback to come back with something more creative and in tune with my readers, no matter the publication. And those with the guts to tell their stakeholders that no, this isn’t going to work at all with this particular publication. (Sometimes, you can best serve your client’s interest by running interference on our behalf, believe it or not.)
There are some PR people from throughout my years as a tech journalist who still stand out: Elaine Chuah and her team (especially Kim) at Priority, who did some amazing work to position Intel as more than just a chip company, producing some great stories at the time.
Sabri Zain of IBM Malaysia, a former colleague at In.Tech, who was such a font of information and who “protected” the media from any backlash within his company. (He had bosses who would rant over any report they deemed unflattering of IBM, but then we would end up getting drunk somewhere together — which would lead to even more stories, ahem).
Zeffri Yusof, also a former In.Techer, who at Google Malaysia exudes so much geek enthusiasm that it’s infectious. And who respects us enough not to kiss our behinds.
Michael Ang, first at IBM then at Microsoft, who knew how to get under the skin of any publication and present story angles that seem so self-evident to the media that they would be under the impression that they were the ones who came up with the idea. We kept getting so annoyed at each other over the years that when he finally left Microsoft Malaysia to take up a regional position, he got his final revenge by recruiting me into the company.
And don’t feel slighted if you’re a good PR practitioner who has been left out of this roll call. Deal with it.
Indeed, I may snap at you; I may say “no, don’t waste my time”, and I may feel like pulling my hair out … but the only PR people who truly annoy me are those bereft of ideas and short on persistence.
This article was previously published in The Malaysian Insider