It is an ongoing complaint of journalists that PR people pitch them irrelevant material, clutter their inbox, disturb them on deadline with annoying requests, and so on. PR people complain in kind that journalists are difficult to get through to, even when when good-for-everyone excellent stories are the sure outcome of a pitch. The result is that each side, PR folks and journalists, begins to see the other as slightly deranged in their own unique ways, a perspective that could eventually undermine the symbiotic PR-media relationship on a broad scale unless we shape up. Of course, this cycle is self-perpetuating. The less tactfully we interact with one another, the worse our impressions get, which in turn threatens to worsen our tact.
We Know the New School
Awareness of this problem in our industry is widespread, but our solutions often do not go far enough, or else sometimes over rely on technology like social media that, while potentially fruitful, often simply adds to the chaos plaguing the media. Something tells me also that a certain amount of Twitter interaction between PR people and journalists rings false for both parties. Twitter blurs too much the line between media outlet and casual forum to be particularly effective for achieving either. Of course, it’s usefulness for building communities and followings around brands is unparalleled.
Respectful, well-researched pitching and interaction on phone, email, and social media can go a long way, but there is a certain kind of interaction that must be done when the feet are up: to hear what someone really thinks, or to talk through an idea or a project at length requires catching one’s audience when they are off the clock, relaxing.
But Shouldn’t Forget the Old School…
It is our custom at MSR for staff to meet regularly with journalists in the oft-neglected “meatspace.” Taking members of the USA Today San Francisco Bureau out for a coffee, making introductions, and networking the old fashioned way. In a contemporary culture obsessed with the old way of doing things (think artisan moustaches, craft whisky, etc.), this has proven remarkably fruitful.
My own favorite and accidentally-discovered approach is a passive one: haunting the bars, cafes, bistros, and restaurants of San Francisco, and waiting for conversation to take its course. At the No Name Bar, the neighborhood living room of my town, Sausalito, I became friends with David Mitchell, the emeritus Editor in Chief of the Point Reyes Light, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for its work to uncover the abuses inflicted by the Synanon cult on the West Marin community. Also regulars at the No Name are a small group of freelance writers, former newsmen, and a steady stream of businessmen looking to get their name out. One evening, after expressing my affection for the Economist to a stranger, he slipped a card into my hand identifying himself as one of its publishers.
The 1960s dockside dive Sinbad’s offered a brief interaction with a man who looked remarkably like Carl Nolte (I decided it was after this article appeared shortly after). Le Central on Bush Street gives patrons a chance to gaze at legendary Chronicle columnist Herb Caen’s dice cup. If I had been hanging out playing Boss Dice at Le Central in 1975, I may have given him a tip… And while Herb Caen is there now only in spirit, the city’s editors and writers eat and drink somewhere, and I have become determined to accidentally meet as many of them as possible.
The forum in which interactions take place has a great influence on how that interaction will go. Journalists and PR people are all people, and people usually fancy a drink, a bite to eat, and good conversation, and while “work mode” is off, work is still a fair subject. As social media becomes increasingly synonymous with work, we can find a lot of good going back to the old “pressing the flesh.”