Writers, like teeth, are divided into incisors and grinders

Walter Bagehot

Nov 10, 2015

Don’t be a spiv and a time-waster

The perils of following up press releases

I had friend once, a fellow journalist, who left the industry to join a North East PR agency.

The agency, which has since closed, was notorious among journalists for being a cowboy outfit run by a spiv but had large client base which churned over at great rate.

My friend soon got fed up and left. The last straw was a severe telling off the spiv gave him when he overhead him on the phone telling a news editor that a press release he was sending over wasn’t the best story but might make a filler.

“You should sell every story as though it’s front page news,’’ raged the spiv.

The spiv had never worked on a busy news desk, or he might have had a different philosophy.

When I was a business editor on a morning daily I would get into work at around 9.30am. After looking through the paper my time would be spent feverishly preparing for the 11am news conference where I - along with news editors and sports editors and photographic editors – would have to present my news list to the editor.

That list might be greeted with contempt, derision or – if one was lucky – a non-comital grunt. Other news editors, if they smelt any blood in the water, might belittle it. Nothing personal you understand, just business, as drawing attention to other’s shortcomings might deflect attention from your own.

While getting this list together in that fraught hour or so before conference, I would be assigning work to my reporters and answering their questions.

At the same time I would be reading the latest press releases. There could be up to 100 of these. Do the math - if I devoted 30 seconds to each release that would account for the best part of my pre-conference preparation time.

So, dear reader, imagine my chagrin, if I also received a phone call from a PR agency asking me whether I had received their press release and whether I intended to use it. Calculate also, how much time it would take if I received a call regarding just half the releases I received in a day and spent a minute on each call.

Looking back, I regret the venom with which I responded to these calls. The poor account execs were, after all, only doing the bidding of someone like the spiv and trying to sell their stories.

There are two lessons here. One: find out what the critical periods are for news desks, when news conferences or deadlines loom and avoid contacting them, unless it’s a matter of life and death. Two: don’t waste a news editor’s time and try to sell him a rubbish story. He or she will be no more likely to use it and – worse – when you do have a decent story to sell, they just won’t listen to you.