Thursday, August 28, 2008

Dealing with PR Departments - How To Stay In Control

You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. Essentially, that's how PR departments and writers get on with one another. We NEED each other. If PR departments don;t give us the information, then we have little to write about. And if we have little to write about, the products that the PR companies are trying to sell won't see the light of day. It's the perfect relationship isn't it?

PR departments can give us information, facts, statistics and even be a good source of free pictures. However, in order to give us this free information, they want to ensure that their products are getting the right sort of 'spin'. Sometimes it's common for PR companies to ask to see a copy of your article to check that the right message is coming across. Now there's no right or wrong answer to this. However, with PR companies I tend to refuse and say that as a freelance writer I have no control over the piece once I've submitted it. So if the PR people made changes to my article, I can't guarantee that the piece the returned to me is the piece that is published. I was once commissioned by a magazine to write an article about going to the Lake District in winter. The tourist board were immensely helpful in providing information and pictures. They didn't ask to see my piece, and it was probably a good job too. The editor commission me to write a 1500 word piece, but all that was published was 800 words. (I was paid for 1500 words - it was a last minute problem with space that led to the cutting.) But the point I'm making is that if the tourist board had seen the 1500 word article and asked me to make changes, the changes I'd made would probably have been cut anyway.

There are occasions when I show my work to others, usually if I've interviewed somebody and I want them to check that I've understood what they told me and not made any errors. But essentially, with PR departments, I say no. So how can you stay in control?

Explain exactly what you're up to. When you approach a PR officer, make it crystal clear what your feature will be about, the angle you are taking and how you would like them to help you. Remember, there needs to be something in it for the company the PR officer represents. Tell them how you see it as an opportunity for them. I once wrote a feature about staying in unusual self-catering holiday accommodation in the UK and approached two agencies asking for pictures to help illustrate my feature. I explained that the article would be targeting the American market. These agencies like this because when Americans come over to the UK they tend to stay for a couple of weeks rather than just a few days - so they hire accommodation for longer periods.

Clarify what is expected of you. PR officers often make requests of you and you need to follow these (as long as they are reasonable). I once produced a regular column for a local magazine about outdoor clothing and had contacts with over 20 PR officers at various companies. What they requested differs, but I did my utmost to accommodate them. Some just ask me to credit the pictures to their company, whilst others ask me to send them a photocopy of the published feature. This is quite understandable because it becomes the evidence that they can show to their bosses that they've been doing their job properly!

Be prepared with your own facts. Try to have some facts and figures about the publication you are writing for. I almost lost a PR contact I had with my clothing column. They'd been providing me with some brilliant pictures, but unknown to me there had been some internal confusion in the company concerning costs. Because of this, they were reviewing the help they were giving me. Apparently it was costing £80 a time to supply me with the images I was asking for and they weren't sure whether they could continue. I explained that my feature appeared in a magazine with a circulation figure of 20,000 and a readership of over 30,000. Could they get that sort of advertising for £80? When they realised this, they saw that the costs were reasonable and continued to help me.

So treat PR officers with professionalism - it is a professional relationship. You never know how they may be able to help you in the future. And if they've helped you in the past, then send them a Christmas card. It's business etiquette and allows you to put a personal message thanking them for all of their help.

Good luck.