Some PR is good. I rely on good relationships with PR people to get a lot of work done. So the title above is a bit mischievous. It’s just that so, so often, PR is so, so shit, and I’ve had several bad experiences just in the last 24 hours, which have made me feel all ranty. Let me share them with you:
- Fudging – Press releases about financial results that only give the figures they want to give. Profit is up 30% – from what to what? Revenue was £2.3m – but what was it last year? It’s a private company so I can’t look them up anywhere. Press releases are meant to answer questions, not raise them.
- Making stuff up – This one didn’t happen to me personally, but similar things have on many occasions. I stumbled upon Ben Goldacre’s record of his wrangling with Rentokil about their made-up figures about cockroaches on trains. This sort of thing is endemic in the British press (tabloid and broadsheet alike) – not because PRs are stupid (though many are) but because lots of them just don’t care. They feel they have the right to make any claim they want – and don’t bother talking to them about evidence or responsibility or survey methodology because they could not give a rat’s arse.
- Rampant hyperbole – A press release about a fairly small-scale film competition, mostly involving amateurs, claimed to have uncovered “the most talented filmmaker in the country”. This is stated as a plain fact. Later in the release (which was distributed immediately after the winner was announced), he gives an extensive quote about how it felt to win – a work of fiction. This is the sort of release that makes journos feel like they’re in a fight with PR: they throw exaggerations, half truths, fudged numbers and complete lies at you, and you try to parry them as best you can. If you’re not alert enough or are pushed for time, they’ll get some hits in. Is that how it’s meant to be?
- Obstruction – PR is meant to help journos get facts right, isn’t it? Yesterday I was on the phone to a utility regulator in the UK whose PR person refused (yes, point blank refused) to tell me what penalties the regulator is empowered to issue on companies, on the grounds that I would probably use it to blow the story out of proportion. I tried to tell her that the information was in the public domain, and that I was only ringing up to make sure I didn’t misunderstand what I had found buried in long legal documents on the website. But she had already presumed my ill will and incompetence and refused to elucidate any further. As a result my story contained a reference to what I think is the maximum possible penalty the regulator can ever issue (presumably only to be used in cases where people, like, die and stuff). It was impossible for me to write a proper story without reference to what the consequences could be. If the PR had chosen to give me facts rather than hiding them, perhaps I could have given a figure that she, I, and my readers would have preferred.