Author Archive for Cherry Chappell


PR Mistakes no 2: Journalists aren’t ‘cosy’

Journalists come in all forms, way beyond the categories of good, bad and indifferent. Few do the job just for the money. Some are politically savvy; others are meticulous researchers. A few are a royal pain. Almost all want to write a book and one or two accomplish this.

The specialists often impress me. My work for some years was in the health and medicine field, and so I dealt with health editors and correspondents. The most senior have a deep knowledge both of medicine as a science and also of the endless ramifications of the NHS, which of course remains a hugely political arena. In fact, there are one or two who have such a wide understanding that I would sometimes arrange one-to-one briefing sessions, not so much from client to journalist but the other way around! There would be a trade off: latest stories or research from the client, overview of health scene – occasionally with very accurate predictions – from the journalist.

Despite working with some journalists for many years, I was keenly aware that the friendship rested on integrity. It is foolish to present a story you know does not ‘have legs’ simply because your client has unrealistic expectations. It is damaging to your reputation as a PR to do so. I aimed to present only strong stories with real potential, even though on occasions they were not used. This meant that whenever I first contacted the correspondents, I at least had a proper hearing. Feed them a stream of rubbish and this won’t happen. They receive so much material on a daily basis that you need the edge.

The idea that you can buy space is nonsense. Gone are the days of long expensive lunches and soirees. The number of staff posts in journalism has shrunk. Many magazines, print or online, depend on freelances. They are not paid vast amounts and so have to achieve a number of commissions per week to cover the mortgage. Even those on staff have tight deadlines because so much appears instantly online. They need to file copy quickly to stay abreast of the opposition. I haven’t held a press conference for years, even for the stories with national appeal. I will provide information under embargo, and access to both spokespeople and picture opportunities over a number of hours. I have heard sighs of relief from journalists when they realise they are not tied to a specific time at a venue which may not be convenient to them. Nowadays, only the police and government departments persist in calling press conferences.

It is also true that, other than frontline correspondents and travel writers, most journalists have another life: children with homework, dogs to be walked, shopping, cars to be serviced, just the same as the rest of us. They want to get home at a reasonable time, and your elegant evening reception for heavens knows how many journalists won’t have a high attendance unless there are some exceptional stories, angles and some highly desirable spokespeople, otherwise unobtainable.

Expecting favours is another no go area. Just because you supplied fourteen great stories in a stream does not mean you can slip in something weak. If you suddenly have a negative story, forget that you have a great relationship with the journalist on the end of the phone. At most your prior history may buy you a little more time to get your crisis strategy in gear.

So journalists are not cosy. But if they are good, they will be fair. We treasure those guys.


PR Mistakes no 1: Manufacturing the news

To those PR professionals who know me – such as the rest of the Vivid London team, heaven help them – this rant is all very familiar. I believe strongly, you see, it is to our industry’s discredit that far too many young PRs would not recognise a news story if it tripped them up in the street. Highly trained and degreed as they may be, there’s too much about strategy planning, too much theory, and not a milligram of news sense. No wonder journalists despair of the PR interface.

I must admit that it is hard when you have a product or service which, while worthy, is essentially boring. What do you do with an item no longer new to the market place, which has endless rivals – maybe some of what outsmart your client’s gem – and doesn’t add much to human endeavour? If it is a food, drink or cosmetic preparation, you can certainly organise tastings or at least samples for specialist journalists but only if you are entirely sure of its taste, flavour or covering power. Only subscribe to blind tastings if you are confident that all the other products are distinctly inferior. If it is a financial service, ensure there’s a crisis management or at least a good customer complaints service in place. Celebrity endorsement may be useful for some kinds of products (kitchen goods or furniture, phones and games) – or placement in still or on the telly. Linking with partner products sometimes works well.

The other classic PR device is a survey, either sponsored by your client or showing your product in a good light. Journalists know all about these wheezes. Some newspapers and television channels insist on a minimum number of individuals or organisations participating, usually at least 1200 or 1500. Quite right. And they prefer the name of an independent research company to interpret and comment on the results. If your budgets don’t stretch to this, then you cannot do it. Anything lesser will not have credibility and it’s not fair to your client to suggest that you can cut corners. In addition, a poorly constructed survey will be disregarded by the journalist – nil point – and that will not enhance either the reputation of your client, and of you and your agency.

If you must manufacture news, do so honestly. Maybe someone in your client organisation has a strong industry viewpoint or even better, something on a national platform. If those views are valuable, pertinent and up to the minute – and unlikely to have a nasty backlash, coo, you may have something newsworthy. Make sure that person is fluent and sufficiently smart to be photographed, kick in the presentation and media training – and punt them to a waiting world.

But if there isn’t a story – there isn’t a story and you will have to take other routes to glory!


How to make your clients love you!

I think of my clients as being like orchids, precious and occasionally a little delicate. They require light (or enlightenment), the right kind of nourishment and a wee bit of pampering. Some like special foods and drink but, in these frugal times, it’s more likely to be Costa Coffee than Claridges. At their best, clients – and orchids – give richness to our lives.

In most cases, your client has commissioned you because there’s synergy. The client not only likes your proposals but also believes that you can work well together.
The art form is to ensure that expectations on both sides continue to be matched. Honesty is paramount. Keep your skills up to date and be prepared to put in the hours. Create the fairy dust they cannot produce for themselves..

There are well known bear-traps of course. Some clients are essentially uncomplicated beings. All they want is a positive story on the front page of the Daily Telegraph, no matter that their product is a basic margarine with not one redeeming health feature. It’s a waste of time to point out that potential purchasers probably take the Express. It has to be the Telegraph, obviously, because that’s what the chairman reads. As the little meerkat says ‘Simples (kchk)’.

I thought this was an old-fashioned concept – surely we have moved on – but variations still occur. Recently, a US business school with a small London presence, well down the league tables overall, wanted coverage only in Business Week and the Financial Times, irrespective of the fact that there was no news story, no ground-breaking research, and a founder who might not wish to discuss his vision. Oh, and the client wanted our success to be reflected in enhanced registrations. And the budget was barely discernable to the naked eye. We asked politely if the client thought potential students were reading these publications but were informed that they should be. Vivid London was scrupulous in stating firmly that no guarantees could be made for coverage, much less in these top titles and so the client went with a bigger agency which, we suspect, took the pitifully small fee and ran.

In a purely consultative role, one is sometimes required to be guru and also therapist. I recommend that consultants do not encourage intimacy. It will probably be an embarrassment to the client later when they are feeling stronger that you know so much about their softer side. I once had to draw a line when a client whose waistband resembled the equator confided that he was worried, not about his weight, but about his hairline. We were heading into confessions of a racy youth and the regrets of middle age. We don’t go there.

Sometimes clients veer towards the tasteless or even something downright bad for them. In the former case, that’s fine: they are over the age of consent and they are paying. Where it is not in their best interest, you can give advice, if necessary robustly. Where you or your organisation are compromised or undermined, you must think carefully about any ongoing relationship.

Look after your better houseplants. Tend them, prune them, enjoy the flowering period – and with luck they will become perennials.


The Peter & Iris Show

Well, of course the story was going to run and run, here, there and across the globe. A man of 60 with a 19 year-old lover – ordinary (dog bites man); a woman of 60 with a 19 year-old lover – fascinating (man bites dog).

Of course, having a name like Mrs Robinson is going to give an older girl ideas anyway, particularly if you have kept your figure and have the money to groom well. Having money – yours or, as in this case, somebody else’s – to give to the young lover is not going to be to your detriment. A husband who looks gallant, and bruised in an elegant fashion, appearing in your defence on national telly, is an added bonus. If you want instant celebrity, this is the way to do it.

I have never wanted to undertake personality PR. I leave that to the publicists such as Max Clifford. From the political point of view, there are those who believe that the finance issue will hand power to Sinn Fein. I feel unqualified to comment on the ramifications of that.

But as the Robinsons’ PR, I would have advised Mr Robinson, albeit with cuckolds’ horns, to hang on to his job. He is obviously well respected and competent. Interest in the strength of his wife’s knicker elastic will wane.

I suspect that other men will take a good look at Iris to see what the fuss has been about, will publicly sympathise with Peter, and keep an eye on their own wives’ diaries for a while. Iris not reporting on her financial affairs ‘to the relevant authorities’ seems mild compared to the shenanigans of Westminster.

Am I getting too cynical for words? I believe so.


The future of media; new and otherwise

As my background is both as a hack (journalist) and a flack (PR), I belong not only to the Chartered Institute of Public Relations but also The Media Society.  Both keep me in touch with how the ways of disseminating information in our society – that is, how we pick up news – continues to change.

At The Media Society’s Summer Party (Groucho Club, of course, with lots of wine and not enough nibbles), we had a talk by Steve Richards, the chief political commentator for The Independent. You may remember that he has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and GMTV’s The Sunday Programme – and written for other publications including The Evening Standard. He is therefore both hugely informed and entertaining – his impersonation of Lord Mandelson was killingly funny. Steve made various predictions about the forthcoming election, not least that the Lib Dems are unlikely to support either of the two main parties should there be a hung Parliament. This has been mooted since but that was the first time I had heard it.

From a PR point of view, the most interesting insight was that this will be the last General Election where the tabloid newspapers have real influence.  We all know that newspapers across the board are struggling for advertising and are reeling from the impact of online news services.  Even so, it’s a shock to hear it.  It’s been a traditional part of British electioneering for a century or two.

Do I feel concerned?  Not really.  You see, whatever the methods we use to deliver news, opinions and insights, at the end of the day, it is the content that is important.  It is the thoroughness and accuracy of research, the authenticity of the reporting, the balance of views and the authority of the spokespeople that make any news source of value – or not. The form of delivery be it in printed form or online or, for that matter, flown in by Harry Potter’s owl, is not irrelevant but matters less than the quality.

And I’m all for quality!

Cherry Chappell
A Senior Partner of Vivid London, Cherry Chappell is a public relations practitioner of long-standing and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. A former journalist, she is also an author, with five non-fiction books to her credit. She is a member of The Media Society and Women in Journalism.

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