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There's nowt so close as love and hate. Public relations people and journalists have a constant, bickering Tom and Jerry relationship that often gives me much gentle amusement. PR people annoy journalists by being incompetent, lazy and slavish to their unreasonable clients. Journalists annoy PR people by being lazy, incompetent and slavish to their unreasonable masters.
Rarely do both sit down and commiserate, although you'd have thought the above was grounds for considerable empathy. Veteran journalist Frank Kane of The National took a pop at hapless PRs sending him awful stories in his column yesterday. It's not unamusing. You could argue he was shooting fish in a barrel - the volume of dire press releases that goes out in the UAE every day is remarkable not only for its volume but its persistence. When you consider the vast majority of these announcements have no hope of achieving any coverage whatsoever, you do wonder why the relentless tide of mindless mush continues.
Kane picks a couple of examples from the bin, the Dyson airblade release being surely the result of an almost manic optimism "No, really, it WILL get coverage. National newspapers LOVE to hear about hand dryer installations. TRUST me on this one, Phil!" He could have gone on at much greater length and easily been a great deal unkinder. I do wonder if Dyson's agency will claim credit for the clip with the client... Or, indeed, tell them a local blogger's nicknamed it DysonGate.
"See? Major media AND blogs! I TOLD you we'd get traction on this one, Phil!"
In a previous life I used to edit a magazine called BBC GulfWide - it was a sort of wrapper of local features around the BBC Middle East listings and I quite enjoyed producing it. Every month I dedicated a double page spread to lampooning the efforts of the local PRs. I was younger, then, and more unkind. Reading back over some of these spots now does make me laugh. But the same releases were going out then, the same idiotic appeals to 'depute a photographer' from my 'esteemed publication' (a phrase Kane picked up on). The same ridiculous releases about something nobody in their right minds other than the people working in that company would care about mixed in with inappropriately targeted product releases. Why did agencies think the BBC listings magazine, a features only title, would cover news releases? Or that we were interested in hair care products?
And why, more to the point, do they still persist in sending out these awful releases today, almost two decades later. Have we really not moved on one iota?
That's a complicated question, actually. It's a mixture of agencies pandering to clients without giving them good advice, clients who believe agencies are there to do what they're told, not consult on the most effective course and media that actually will run this sort of tripe. Because if the standard of local PR can hit Dead Sea level lows, the standard of journalism can match it metre for metre. I'd probably go for a dig in the ribs and bring the Mariana Trench into it.
I'm going to echo Kane's admirable example and not name names. But the newspaper - the national daily newspaper - that ran a story today about how traffic is slowing down around the new junction in Ajman is only one microscopic example from a rejoinder that could run for thousands of words. Kane, himself brought up in the days of pencil-licking notebook journalism, would recognise the classic 'six questions' structure in the first paragraph of the news piece:
Ajman: Cars approached the newly opened Al Hamidiya interchange with caution on Wednesday morning, slowing down to read the signboards, trying to figure out which way will take them to their desired destination, changing lanes carefully to get on their way.Or perhaps not. That was the first para of a page lead story, by the way, not a News In Brief. When you add that to the copy/paste hacking, the plagiarism, the fawning to authority and toadying to influence and then throw in a good measure of lack of depth, research, investigative or searching journalism and sprinkle a masala of news wire copy, laziness and verbatim press release you start to comprehend the true worth of the media environment.
Am I tarring all journalists with that brush? Of course not, just as Kane is careful not to tar all PRs with his. But we both know that we're both right and there's too much of what we've both pointed out going on.
Sadly, the truth of the matter is journalists get the PRs they deserve. At least they've stopped complaining that PRs make them lazy, which used to be the case in days of yore...