In an exclusive interview with Image Management, Hindustan Times’ columnist and Twitter superstar N Madhavan (@madversity) discusses his pet PR peeves, the relationship between PR and the media, as well as the impact of social media on communicators, brands, and journalists.
Q. Many in the PR industry admit that PR has a PR problem. What are your thoughts on how the industry is perceived?
There are two extremes of journalists. One group rides piggyback on PR while the other looks down on the PR industry. I’m quite uncomfortable with both the extremes because to blame the PR industry and not listen to it would be not fair because they represent clients and it’s not really their job to look for stories beyond the clients. Simply put, a smart PR person knows how to find a role for their client within the journalistic context, whereas a smart journalist knows how to leverage the PR resources to meet deadlines or the right people. I have myself used PR industry for good background research at one point, so I have some very pleasant recollections of that. So this extreme view is bad for journalism.
The other extreme – of looking at PR professionals as some people who are just irritating you – is equally bad. Perhaps it is important to understand why these perceptions come. Part of it is of course old fashioned idealism which many journalists have – combined with a healthy disregard for the powerful or the rich. You think they are trying to sell a point of view and they are a little wary. Or they are wary of what you call the cold calls, which is what I’ve also observed.
What is happening is that market communication has killed PR. Marketing Communication as a discipline from the brand perspective is looking great but it treats communication essentially as a brand oriented marketing, advertising or sales tool. Now, as it is, brand evolution, you don’t do justice to it when you reduce it to a sales tool, since brands have long term implications. Even within the economic eco-system, there are players like employees, shareholders, customers. Therefore, the customer alone doesn’t matter.
Q. Specifically, how do you think journalists view the PR industry?
I don’t want to get into some of journalism’s problems because journalism also has a PR problem. But, to draw from a cricket analogy, a lofted shot can get you a six or a four, but you are lucky if there is no fielder there. You can get a big article in a newspaper or a big slot in a TV channel because a young reporter who is immature obliges you with some interview. That’s the lucky side of PR. I would argue that the lucky side of the PR is the unlucky side for media and journalists. But the opposite of that is also true, where a journalist may ignore a real story, may not even take calls, maybe irritated by some other reason. PR needs to get its act together. I’d agree that some of the flak faced by PR is unfair but some of them are deserved.
So let’s deconstruct the fair and the undeserved. It is unfair when a journalist doesn’t even look at inputs from a PR agency, or doesn’t take calls because PR has a PR problem. This is well known by now, so question in where is the PR problem? This takes us to part two of the PR problem, which is, if you employ methods, procedures and processes that put you in a position where you are not taken as seriously as you want to be. That’s when something should be done to improve the image of the company and that’s where I’ve been talking tweeting and criticizing people.
One issue is the cold calling culture of putting random young people in touch with senior journalists. Many PR people dealing with the media do not know what or who they are dealing with. They hear something vaguely, from the processes, and as my experience as a manger, probably somebody is just told to do some job. There is not sufficient mentoring, structuring and knowledge sharing within the PR industry.
I got a call this morning, from a previously unheard of PR agency, saying we have released door product or something. It was a construction industry call or it could be a lifestyle product call. As a Senior Business Editor, I am not the frame to even take such a call. But it happened, raising the question, why did it happen?
Somebody must have just mentioned me vaguely with the Hindustan times. The big racket is either third party agencies selling media lists or PR people leaving their company and starting their own companies, taking the list with them. The lists aren’t properly updated or journalistic hierarchies and structures aren’t studied properly. Beats, ownerships, issues are not properly mapped. So they can’t tell a feature writer from a reporter, a reporter from a columnist, a columnist from an editorial writer, an editorial writer from a news editor. Very often they do things at random.
The other thing that gets to me is that they treat it like some sales call. So they try in Delhi, if it doesn’t work then they try the same with a newspaper in Bombay, which kind of spoils the rhythm of the entire thing. It also puts journalists on the defensive, or makes them wary because you end up thinking that these people are hard sellers and you would shut the door on them just you would for an insurance agent or credit card sales. The PR industry needs to ask itself what it has done wrong, would it like to be bracketed along with cold calling callers or credit card seller. This is the big issue facing PR.
Q. What are some other annoying mistakes that PR professionals make while pitching stories to journalists? Any anecdotes?
I have an anecdote about a real-estate industry. One lady landed up with a bunch of lovely flowers recently, and unlike other gifts, flowers are hard to say no to. I entertained her, she was very nice. Within a month, she was out of her job. Another person comes, who had obviously inherited the phone number. She pestered me to attend a function which is of no interest to me. It is not clear why that person called me, or got in touch with me. I can understand a real estate company trying to get in touch with me because they might have an IPO plan or something, but in this case, there was an utter lack of sophistication.
I expect a Senior PR person in any agency to lead the junior team, and know exactly who is covering what. And so when you get in touch with X in a media organization, neither he nor you will be surprised. You will not face any rudeness.
20 years ago, Christopher Sinclair, then President of Pepsi, was in India to launch Pepsi. But it was a controversial company at that time because India was opposing FDI in many ways, so they had many conditions attached to their goal, so the press was waiting to ask a lot of questions. Sinclair appeared only for 15 minutes, made a brief statement, and took exactly 1-2 vague questions. The worst part is that he disappeared suddenly and so did his PR team, leaving the journalists only with dinner and drinks. I wrote an article on this, I was with Business Standard then, called “Pepsi’s strange PR”. I got a warm call from IPan and then the relations improved. Basically, you don’t organize press conferences where you can’t answer questions!
More recently, the most frequent problem I have is people coming or just calling to ask if I have received a press release, which is of no importance to me. There should a proper process where you send an e-mail, remind through SMS perhaps. You should call only if you think the person is appropriate, at the level, or that the nature of the news is important enough. What I find very often is that PR agencies representing clients just let loose freshers.
It goes like this. Am I talking to X? I’m Y, calling on behalf of Z, is this a good time to talk? And then have shared ABC press release with you, have you received it? Some of them get pally at the first juncture, as if they don’t know my age, my work, what I do, what I don’t do. Or they randomly ask, are you the one covering this, I find all this very tacky. You can always call up the bureau chief, seek an appointment, get a list of reporters, who is covering what and discuss. You can email, exchange client lists, and inform them. There are people, who are doing it. I see none of that happening. I find the senior level of PR agencies’ engagement with the media has come down heavily. It is very disturbing, because it lowers your understanding of agencies and therefore the clients of the media. It wastes a lot of resources, irritates journalists, and creates what you call PR industry’s PR problem. Which means you do not give the media even 50% of importance that you give to the client, where as you do it through the media.
Q. How has the advent of social media affected the relationship between PR and media? How do both industries need to adapt to stay relevant?
The conversations taking place on Twitter can be very energizing and constructive if the PR person in question is sensitive. A lot of crowd sourcing possibilities emerge.
For PR people, social media is a place to engage, to listen carefully, and provide feedback where necessary. Get in touch with journalists, depending on what you want to say.
These conversational engagements can lead to correcting of impressions, enrichment of information, building contacts, new ideas. Bottom line is that, the more PR people are sensitive to journalistic needs and the more they think like journalists, the better it is.
Q. A recent survey of UK journalists revealed that the majority of them preferred receiving story pitches for PR professionals on Twitter. What rules do you have in terms of being approached by PR professionals?
Twitter is a very efficient place. Biggest danger for any journalists working on Twitter is that a big idea or a news break shouldn’t be in a public domain where other people or journalists are watching. I’m here from Hindustan times, talking on Twitter to a PR person and somebody from Times of India is listening to it, then theoretically it poses a problem because your story idea might get stolen.
This morning, I got a direct message from someone, not a PR person. But it is a classic case of how a story tip-off might happen. That person tweeted me about a very major corporate story going on these days, on front pages. I immediately alerted reporters on that. Now, the person is in the corporate eco-system, not a PR person, but just imagine if that person had said that same thing publicly on Twitter. We often share public tweets, but he had his own reasons to be confidential. But if that happened, I perhaps wouldn’t have been comfortable.
I still think Facebook is best for personal communication though there are a lot of people on my Facebook friend list whom i am not friends with, but the nature of the Journalists- PR engagement is such that there is a certain friendly air about it. There are different degrees of friendship or friendliness you may have depending on the persons or the number of years you have known them. The head of Google’s PR, is a daily visitor on my Facebook page and she shares my status updates, we have wonderful things going on. Having said that, everyone knows their limits and their potential. Twitter works fine for PR story features when it is general bantering of ideas and trend spotting. It doesn’t work for hard story breaks. That is the basic point.
Q. What is your take on how brands are utilizing social media?
I’ve said this in at least three public speeches that with the coming of the social media, brands are back to what they were before 20th century advertising happened. They are about reputation all over again and not just recall. Two-way conversation was amplification, it is even beyond that. It is a steroid; it is a two way conversation in which people you have no clue are around are listening in. I have 18,000 followers on twitter, I am not even having 10 conversations but hours later I’ll get a tweet reply mention which tells me that somebody has been following the thread and has an opinion of his or her own.
Twitter appears like a one – to –one conversation but is many-to-many. So there is ricochet effect, the ball moves around like in a squash court.
Another thing social media does to brands apart from ricochet effect is what I call the positive negative vectors. It’s like a vector analysis where I don’t think there is any brand that there is nobody out there saying negative things. Similarly, even for not so good brands, there is somebody saying positive things. What matters is the overall buzz it creates in the community and the overall reputation you create, defend and nurture.
If you look at it from that point of view, PR people need to understand this game better. It is not about disseminating information alone that happens through the usual medium anyway. It also gets delightfully shared across Twitter, like yesterday there was a study about engineers not being good at English which I tweeted. It had 16-17 re-tweets because the data given by the press release was very important, so news travelling in the grid automatically builds reputation. Reputation happens when you are talking about positive or negative things or experiences, the win hash tags or the fail hash tags, This is where the PR industry needs to understand the importance of interventions as opposed to disseminations. Whether you’re going to join the conversations or gently intervene in the conversation.
Madhuri Dixit tweeted this morning saying there was a time when fans would get in touch with us and we’d reply by post but Twitter makes it all so simple. Amitabh Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit are great case studies in how Twitter has changed things. It’s a great lesson for PR and media. Even media can’t get away with stenography anymore. For instance if I’m going to just copy and paste what Amitabh Bachchan said, though a lot of people still do that because they are not on Twitter, but as the day progresses, media people have to be less and less of stenographers.
In the 20th century, bad journalists were accused of rehashing press releases, now they are being accused of rehashing and repeating tweets. It is relevant for media and PR people to understand that social media takes PR further away from advertising and social media takes journalism further away from stenography. There is a lot of incompetence in journalism hiding behind a lofty statement that it is not media’s job to comment, it is just to carry the message. Nothing is further from the truth, because in trying to avoid comment, they end up avoiding interpretation, contextualization and news judgment which are very critical for good journalism. The PR people also have to shake themselves off because two years ago it was fashionable to launch fan pages and ask someone to like it. Who is going to watch a Twitter feed that says “I am Reebok, look at how cool we are” or “I am Coca- Cola, we make the best sugar drink in the world.” Coca-Cola is hot on Twitter today because of Coke Studio which is an independent music initiative, so Coke brand grows on social media. You have to get generic if you want to be successful.
Interviewed by Kunal Pal for Image Management