Spin city fights back: egos, fear and loathing in the by-line business

Journalists should spend more time on breaking great stories and less on berating PR for its shortcomings. By Evelyn Holtzhausen.

I guess the excitement of seeing your name in print day after day or week after week, combined with the power you yield to make or break a person, or business or highlight the plight of the lesser spotted swamp frog that is facing extinction, gives some reporters a false sense of their self-importance.

Ego, it is said, grows in direct proportion to by-line frequency. It’s most often seen among self-centered journalists who expect the world to know exactly who they are, for which publications they write, and pay them the groveling respect they believe is due to them; and woe betide those poor publicists, or public relations professionals who don’t.

I know; I left the heady world of ego enhancement by byline-about 15 years ago. Now I operate from the ‘dark side’. In fact I am proud to be one of the public relations professionals – publicists or spin doctors if you like – who globally provide reporters with up to 70 percent of what is published in newspapers and magazines and broadcast on radio and TV news. (Ref Nick Davies, Flat Earth News.)

But unlike some journalists, I don’t get on my high horse when I am not paid the respect I believe I deserve. This disrespect manifests itself for example when some wandering reporter strolls half an hour late into my press conference, dressed for the beach, or in clothes that look as if they have been slept in, totally clueless about what is going on, hoping that, at best, there may at least be a free T- shirt, branded peak cap or cup of coffee and blueberry muffin cake on offer.

These are the creatures that add insult to injury as they sit, hardly taking any notes, and leave early to “meet another deadline.” Nine times out of ten times they make a complete hash of the story they write, simply because they have not been paying attention. E-mail me the release they say, then still get it wrong as they cut n´ paste what we publicists write into their stories.

So I am a little annoyed to say the least by the articles which appear in rotation in which various reporters take swipes at public relations professionals who apparently do not know who they are, what publication they write for or how important they are.

Get a life

For goodness sake: if you are a crime writer and you get a press release about a new knitting pattern trash it and move on. If you are a food writer and you get a press release from a novice publicist about a flower show, trash it and move on. If you work for Life and some brain dead PR sends you a release about death trash it and move on. It’s that simple.

Would it not be far more productive to spend your time looking for a real story instead of reverting to another sadly clichéd rant about the “ignorant PeeAre” who (God help us) do not know who you are. Of course public relations practitioners who take the time to get to know the publications and their writers at whom they aim their press releases will have greater success for their clients than those who do not.

Common sense will rule. Those PR professionals who take the trouble to do their research and show respect to their intended audience – journalists in search of a good story – will stay in business and those who don’t won’t.

And while I am on the subject, allow me to mention, my dismay at how many ‘reporters’ have called me to ask me to write a story for them to which they will put their by-line. (“I need my name in the paper and I don’t really have a story”, one wag wailed recently.

The problem here is not the real professional who just gets on with the job. It’s the ego-driven reporter with an overblown sense of his or her own importance.

I recall an incident when I was based in London as the correspondent for the biggest circulating Sunday Newspaper in South Africa. My editor sent me to interview a musician who was, at the time, top of the charts in the USA and the UK.

Accustomed to being rebuffed by some rude, belligerent, self-important “pipsqueak” musicians in South Africa, I dreaded the assignment. As it turned out, the man was polite, friendly and actually quite humble. I got a great page one interview and picture.

Let the work speak for itself

There was no need for him to puff himself up with his own importance. His work spoke for him. And so it ought to be with professional journalists. The investigations they mount, the skullduggery they expose and the stories they write set the tone for how they are perceived. They earn our respect. We know their names and the publications for which they write.

In the end a useful philosophy would be for PRs and journalists to respect each other. We both have a job to do and if we both do it professionally and with integrity we all win. You get your story, our clients get a mention and you sell more newspapers. It´s that simple.

In my years as a reporter, instead of viewing the PR /publicist environment with distain, I made sure I got to know the professional public relations people who had clients in my areas of interest: politics, the environment, publishing etc.

I used their insider knowledge to give depth to the stories I wrote. From time to time a mention of their client would appear in context in a story.

My argument then is to promote a healthy relationship between us communicators, publicists and journalists, whether we are the source of the story, the writer or publisher; that way everyone wins. Slagging each other off serves no productive purpose at all. It’s merely infantile. And ultimately, simply tiresome.

Author’s Details

Evelyn John Holtzhausen is CEO, HWB Communications, Cape Town, South Africa. A former Senior Assistant Editor, Night Editor and Senior Writer of the Cape Times and Sunday Times, he has worked as a journalist in South Africa, Swaziland, the United Kingdom and Norway. Evelyn has 15 years’ experience in Public Relations and specialises in strategy development and crisis communications. An enthusiastic hiker, Evelyn wrote a fortnightly column, titled Urban Edge for the Cape Times for 11 years. His poetry anthology, In the Palm of My Soul was published in 1997

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