Kushan Mitra, The Pioneer : There is confusion between PR and lobbying among senior journalists

Kushan Mitra, Managing Editor, The Pioneer

As Managing Editor at The Pioneer, Kushan Mitra talks about the journalist -PR relationship in India . In his exclusive interview with Image Management, we explore how journalists would like to be approached by PR professionals, what annoys them and his nuanced view of PR.

Q.  Many people from within the industry admit that the PR industry has a PR problem. What are your thoughts on that?

There is confusion between PR and lobbying among senior journalists. I am part of the first generation journalists who have grown up with professional PR from day one. My first job in journalism was in 2001. When I began journalism, I knew some of the guys in PR, some of whom are very senior, even head of PR firms. I have a level of trust with many people and I know a lot of my classmates, batch mates who got into PR. 

But yes, there is a perception problem, particularly among a generation  ahead of me, so my dad’s generation or people slightly junior to him. My former editor Chandan (Mitra) didn’t like PR people at all, before him, Rohit (Saran) had a very ambivalent view about them, R Sukumar has a nuanced view about PR. I would say my view is also nuanced. Some of us realize we have to work with PR people, particularly corporate communications people, as well as senior professionals in agencies. It is important for me to maintain links with people like Dilip (Cherian), Zach (James), Bobby (Kewalramani), Prema (Sagar) because it is a feedback loop. These people also give us stories and, as a business journalist, it is vital. Some of my friends in The Economic Times share this view. I am friends with some people in PR, but at arm’s length. Friendship doesn’t mean I don’t do negative stories, though. 

I have issues with some small agencies. Particularly in the past 5 odd years, there has been an explosion in the number of small agencies. Many people who were in this profession for anywhere between 5 to 9 years decided to do something of their own. They caught 3-4 clients, enough to maintain a staff of 5- 10 people.

Many journalists hate PR people because they follow up with them for an email. I have email all over my phone, desktop, table laptop, but I might still ignore it. I am not a snappy person and I only scream in response to someone’s scream in office, if at all.  I know there is a 22 year old girl at the other end of the phone who is only trying to do her job. She hasn’t been trained well. I should scream at her boss, not her. 

PR’s problem is that lot of PR is unnecessarily spam. PR’s perception problem, in my generation, is that there is too much of it, and what they are trying to sell me. The PR perception problem that I have with several PR people is that something give stories that are narrated, they don’t put in any original thought. 

Q.  Has the relationship between journalists and PR professionals changed from 10 years ago?

The quality of people in both journalism and PR has gone down. For one, the older PR professionals could write much better, and therefore the quality of press releases has gone down. Similarly, the quality of writing in journalism has gone down. It is an overall quality issue. It is also because other industries started paying a lot better.  People that could have come into journalism or PR went into the BPO industry, particularly in the middle of last decade.

Writing and training levels have also gone down.  There have been times when I’ve gone in for meetings in certain industries which I track a lot and areas that fascinate me, and I don’t think the PR person is properly briefed.

Sometimes I have told agencies to hire people who understand technology. Not being briefed well enough about the product they are selling to the journalist is a major problem these days.  The client may know, but the PR person has to know the story he is trying to sell the journalist as well.

I find that the briefing quality has also gone down. In 2001-02, even the client knew how to play the media and they knew the story. Lately, I don’t think even the PR professional knows the story he is trying to sell. When one is pitching a story, they should know what it is about.

Also, younger PR people are very bad at crisis management. They don’t even know how to handle it. They say “Please don’t carry that story because my client will scream at me.” I say, “If I don’t carry it, my boss will scream at me.” I need a compelling reason. The quality of people has certainly gone down. It is not helping with the generation of journalists as well as people like me. 

Q. What annoys you as a journalist about how PR professionals operate?

Regardless of whether you work in PR, maintain professional relationships. I’ve had some rotten experience with regards to time, but again at the early part of my career, I wasn’t punctual.

Be friendly, but don’t flirt. Sell me a compelling story and I’m sold hook, line and sinker. That’s not just in PR, it is also true for journalism.

Q.   What is your take on being approached online, for instance receiving story pitches via Twitter or other social media?

We have smart phones,Facebook, Twitter. One can reach me there but personally, call me, if one has a compelling story to tell me. If one pitches something to me on Twitter after I have met them once at some event, I don’t really know them.  After some interaction in person, at least I know them, we follow each other and they can send me a direct message. I check my twitter more often that I check my G-mail. I get a lot of pitches on my G-chat and Facebook chat by a lot of PR guys because I was once very indiscriminate about adding people on Facebook, but now I tend to ignore that stuff. 

If someone has to sell me a big story, email it first and then try to contact me. If a senior person in an organization is trying to sell me a big story, they will definitely know me personally and therefore can contact me directly. As somebody who is active on twitter, if 20 people approach me on twitter through message, not DM, I will note it because twitter has mentions. But some mentions go into spam so I ignore them, I ignore trolling on Twitter sometimes. 

I don’t want to read releases, it gets boring. On Twitter also, we do it right now maybe because it is new and modern, but I’m waiting for the level of  spam to increase. In India, not every journalist is on Twitter, not ever journalist on Twitter is popular, but I think it is more vital for brands to communicate here. 

Q. What do you think about the way Indian politicians use Twitter?

Shashi Tharoor was the first and he got a lot of flack, but that was also because he posted a lot of silly things. Omar (Abdullah) can speak his line, he and I are friends on Twitter. Much to people’s amazement, Omar often replies to my tweets but friendship does not make any difference, people won’t understand that. 

But it is because of the amount of vitriol on Twitter on the either side of political spectrum. It was a nice media platform, but now both political sides are very vitriolic. It is not just the right wing doing it, it is also the Congress supporters, and it’s also the people on (Arvind) Kejriwal‘s side.

Narendra( Modi)and Sushma (Swaraj)  do not respond, they use it as broadcast, which possibly is the best way for a politician on Twitter. So does Obama, he barely responds himself. Manmohan Singh has never tweeted in his life. But Twitte is definitely a very effective broadcast for a politician. I think Boris Johnson does it very well.

Shashi Tharoor, just like Vijay Mallya, is a man who will tweet himself. Usually I don’t like email interviews because I know the PR person answers it.  But with Vijay Mallya, even with Mr. Mahindra, I know their private email addresses and I know they answer it. If I send a questionnaire to Vijay Mallya and if he answers on Twitter with a “no” or “yes,” I know it’s him. Similarly Mr. Mahindra responds to some people on Twitter, even though he gets some hate on Twitter. 

I also told Barkha (Dutt) that if you are just talking to your close friends you might just talk to them through SMS, instead of tweeting it in public.  Why have a loud conversation with somebody you know with 500 -1000 people following you?

Q. Is there any tweet that sticks out to you as really costly tweet?

Shashi’s (Tharoor) tweets, all of them. There is something informal about Twitter,even now, when people are getting more and more politically correct. I still don’t know how I got into a fight with people. 

My own comment is a tweet which stands out in my head. Should I have said that? No. I basically said “You know f**k all”, and everybody said “Oh my god! You said the ‘F’ word to a woman”.

I used the term in another context but I should not have used the word. I should have said fudge all”or something. I believe that language does matter, and regretcrossing a line, but the sentiment was not abusive.

Q. What do you think the PR professionals need to know about the evolved, integrated newsroom? 

Time cycles have come down even for PR people with the integrated newsroom. For PR as well as for corporate communications people, it means that they will have to respond to crises immediately. 

For example you noticed what happened to Jet Airways. The blog was put up by a friend’s (Angad Chowdhary) wife. Jet was quiet, and before you know, it blew up on their face. This is a PR lesson.

Jet is now classified as pet-hating airlines, even though they actually allow pets on.

Look at the amount of bad PR they gained because Jet only uses social media for brand building. They don’t use social media as PR. You have to also use social media for PR. The international airlines such as Qatar all use social media as PR. They reach out to journalists on social media.

Instant news and integrated newsrooms means everything is on the web, including Twitter, Facebook, news etc. Jet airways have not learned that everything is instant. They should have apologized because the story was running all over the world. I mean there are animal lovers across the world. They could have handled it better on Twitter. They could have said “yes, we regret the incident, or we are investigating the matter.” That half apology at 12 noon would have prevented the situation from worsening.

Interviewed By Kunal Pal for Image Management. 

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