In our latest blog, Geoff Campion gives a personal account on what he learned about PR after growing up with a journalist for a father. Geoff’s father, Charles Campion sadly passed away over Christmas, and he hopes this article raises a wry smile for those that knew him, and offers a glimpse into his personality for those that didn’t. Enjoy.
“PR is the boil on the arse of the industry, my son”, my father once (jokingly) told me when I announced I had secured my first job in the industry. Cheeky sod. Ever the eager deliverer of a droll line in jest, this statement, unfortunately, is indicative of a wider reputation PRs (us) have garnered from journalists (them). Hopefully some of the musings below will help heal the divide.
Firstly, PR is in desperate need of a rebrand – ironic, right! The Ab Fab days of big budgets and champagne are well and truly over. For some, the perception persists. A tightening of budgets, the proliferation of digital platforms, and the growing need for demonstrable ROI, as well as a laser-focus on generating quality content that stands out, has significantly shifted the job spec of PR. The role we do now, in my opinion, is a totally different industry to the one my father would have encountered as a journalist years ago, and that needs to be recognised first and foremost.
Build meaningful relationships
Now, onto the key learnings. Journalists are forever looking for fresh stories, and, to a certain extent, PRs are the conduit for them. Seeking out scoops off the beaten track is a necessity for any journalist worth their salt, but a blanket refusal to write up anything that has been received via a press release or not “off diary” – a practice adopted by some – is nonsensical, in my opinion. It’s all about balance. My father worked with a select few PRs he trusted and, in doing so, created mutually beneficial relationships. As a PR, it’s important to foster meaningful relationships with journalists you have confidence in, and who are open to writing up a good story, giving their own personal take, of course, irrespective of how it ended up in their in-tray. Like it or not, journalists and PRs have a symbiotic relationship that should be nurtured.
Something that’s no doubt impacted the relationship has been the ever-increasing workload piled on journalists. Online platforms have a voracious appetite for stories (arguably, one that mirrors the big man himself). This has, in turn, driven up pressure on journalists’ workloads and deadlines, thus accelerating curmudgeonly disgruntlement from superfluous PR calls. Understanding when, and (arguably more importantly) when not, to ring or chase a journalist, is rule number one to establishing a productive relationship.
Much like life, relevancy is everything
During one of my stints working as an intern, I was presented with a giant Excel doc (not quite old enough for a phone book), and tasked with starting at the top and methodically working my way down over 300 targets to sell in a story that barely had crutches, let alone legs. I was greeted by the same less than sunny disposition I had fine-tuned over the years when answering our own house phone, which doubled up as my father’s work-line, dumfounded as to why the PR on the end of the phone thought their story was appropriate, and worth pitching to me, to flag to my dad. Be targeted, be relevant.
Honesty is the best policy
Charles was always honest when giving feedback, often to a flaw. Once, when dragged by my mother to a social event he didn’t want to attend, and pushed for his honest opinion, he showed great enthusiasm in honestly pointing out the shortcomings of the shortcrust, much to the horror of the hosts. The same honesty should be applied to PR. I’ll let you into a little secret here (but let’s keep it between us), not every story or announcement we facilitate for our clients is a world beater. However, some news stories are incredibly important to our clients and we (PRs) need to find a way to raise awareness for them. Honesty plays a multifaceted role here. Firstly, by gently, or, on some occasions, firmly, pushing back to the client and giving our honest council about the story. If that fails, on to plan B. Can we use creativity or killer insight or a stunning graphic to turn this story into something that we know has a much better chance of gaining traction in the media? Can we re-imagine this in order to get the right result? Then there is always plan C. When pitching a story idea to the journalist, don’t try and wrap it in a bow and sell it as the best thing since sliced bread, be honest, say that it’s on the fence of something they might write about, but if you could ask a favour on this occasion, you will help them with an exclusive later down the line, or treat them to a drink in the pub (remember them?). Don’t polish a turd, roll it in glitter.
If nothing else, be passionate
I think this is a fine mantra to go by in life, not just work. Big Charles, as he was affectionately called by myself and my chums, was immensely passionate about great food and drink and he commanded a steely determination to bestow that enlightenment on all he met. I remember that, on numerous occasions, my father flat out refusing to buy my coming-of-age friends a drink at the bar until they had tried a pint of Bathams. His pilgrimage to champion the golden wonder brew of the Black Country was never-ending, preaching to, and converting, all those he encountered, ranging from beer writers, such as Melissa Cole and Pete Brown, to my adolescent chums. That said, Bathams is an easy sell. My take-out? It’s important to only partner with a business or company that you truly believe in and can get passionate about, if not, then you’re living a rather soulless existence.
Meet your deadlines
Time keeping counts for a lot in the world, as do deadlines. Charles’ first gig as a writer came in the form of a weekly column for the Evening Standard. He had tried to break into food writing by securing a publishing deal for a book he’d written as he negotiated the treacherous waters of unemployment, following a doomed venture into the world of hospitality. He was advised that in order to secure a publishing contract, he needed to get his name known in the papers, so he started to write articles and send them into the Evening Standard, on time, for consideration. More often than not, some commissioned copy was filed late and Charles’ work was used. Eventually, his concise timekeeping paid dividends and he was given the gig. Just like journalism, you should always hit your deadlines in PR.
Love what you do
Another of my father’s favourite phrases (which he liberally rolled out whenever I mentioned I was under the cosh) is that “being busy is a privilege not an entitlement”. This is hard graft, and if you don’t love it, then frankly, you’re in the wrong place. The hours are tough and the pace is fast, much like food writing (stick with me on this one). Contrary to popular belief, being a food writer can be an attritional role. When writing the Rough Guide to London restaurants, Charles would do two, maybe three meals during the day, then head to an event in the evening and get up at 5.30am to start writing. Yes, this does seem like mighty good fun, and I dare say most of the time it was, but it’s a gruelling and tiring schedule. On the occasions I did tag along on a London adventure, when I was coming of age, I dipped in for a couple of days before tapping out and retreating to lick my wounds. Truth be told, trying to be enthusiastic, lively and write punchy copy the evening after a heavy session of relationship building is a very tricky skill, that some fail to master, even with regular practice. But, work’s great fun, and as soon as that stops being the case, it’s time to move on.
For some the observations above will seem like common sense, but, alas, for others, it might seem a foreign language. A fact which, unfortunately, will forever tarnish the relationship between PR and journalists. Perhaps with the ongoing ‘poacher turned gamekeeper’ movement, that sees a growing number of journalists switch to the dark side, in a PR world that is increasingly content and insight-led, we will begin to see a shift in this dynamic. But, until then, I’ll be fighting the good fight, driven by the key learnings and memories of my father, who I’ll miss greatly.