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Don’t shoot the messenger

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Is it right for journalists to blame a press office for not being helpful? Client Partnerships Director (and Head of PR and Social Media) Adam Tuckwell discusses.

This week Tom Whipple, a well-respected and experienced journalist for The Times, wrote: “Amazon have the most unpleasant press office in journalism. I used to deal with the Tamil Tiger press office, and they kidnapped me. Amazon are worse”. It’s a great soundbite, sensationalist in tone and clear in its sentiment. But is it fair to place the blame at PR practitioners’ doors?

Having worked with and for many technology companies during my career in PR, I can testify that technology businesses are often more reticent speaking to the press than similarly sized companies in other industries. The cause for this isn’t entirely clear, but often lies in a mistrust of journalists and the press with concerns that any negative media coverage will impact the perceived value of the firm or its products. If a business’s leadership mistrusts the press, the fault rarely lies with the press office team, but they are the ones stuck in the middle feeling the brunt of journalists’ frustrations.

I’ve never met a PR who has deliberately set out to be obstructive and unhelpful. I have known a small number of journalists who place significant pressure to get an exclusive story, the first look at a product or request a free trial on the promise of a review. PRs naturally want to help, but requests need to be assessed in line with marketing plans and release dates which have been agreed and planned well in advance. These plans cannot easily be changed on the whim of an inflexible journalist.

Some firms do have worse reputations than others for being obstructive. Apple famously doesn’t disclose details of its upcoming products – instead favouring to unveil them at grand launch events. In general, technology hacks fall over themselves to heap praise upon each annual release. Why do they do this? I think it’s because they fear that access to these annual conferences will be revoked the following year if they give less than glowing reviews. It is well-known that Apple holds a blacklist of such journalists and I suspect it is not alone.  

But not all firms have the luxury of holding all the cards and hoping journalists will dance to their tune. Technology companies, just like other product and services firms, need to secure media coverage to raise brand awareness and gain attention. These firms, and the PRs that they employ, need to seek an open dialogue with the journalists and nurture mutually beneficial relationships.

They also have a duty to educate the leadership within their businesses about the role of PR and the importance of being open to the media, so long as it fits with their plans. Media relations need to be based on trust as well as give-and-take, so comments like Tom’s about Amazon’s press office aren’t helpful, unless Amazon are being deliberately obstructive – in which case they’re bringing all practitioners down.

For now, let’s just all agree to get along, play nicely and not resort to naming and shaming hard-working practitioners who might well have their hands tied by those senior to them.

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