Vikram Kharvi is a communications professional who founded and moderates Indian PR Forum, a 3000 member strong community, where members share best practices news, information, and case studies. He tweets as @vikramkharvi and blogs at Vikypedia
It is often said and expected as a critical requirement that a PR professional should have strong media relations. This actually means that a PR professional should know journalists on a personal level so that they can plant stories in the media on behalf of their client or company or can help stop negative stories. I believe that it is this expectation from us that is core cause of all the negative reputation we have earned over the period of time. It is only because of such demands from our employers that our profession has got a bad reputation of being fixers, spin masters and middlemen. Because of the so called relations, clients get their job done through us but at the hind side they just see us as liaising officers. On the other hand, I don’t want to get into to specifying what reputation we enjoy amongst media people as well.
The above may sound a bit too exaggerated but just think about it: weren’t you asked in your interview – How good is your relationship with the media? How many journalists do you know personally? In fact, in one of my interviews I was told to give list of the journalists who I know personally. I can understand if the agency bosses or marketing heads want to check your media understanding and knowledge. If that was so, then the questions would have been: which is the top regional publication in Jharkhand? Or who is the Editor of the top language publication in the Uttarakhand? I don’t want to generalize as I also know of a few agency heads who do ask these questions as well in the interview, but these are one of those very rare breed of people who truly understand how PR works. But in most cases you will come across people who have only known how PR has been working till date in this country.
The expectation from a PR professional has always been to have a personal rapport with the journalists so that if required they can convince them to do or drop a story for a client. I am not saying that having a good rapport with a particular journalist is a bad thing, but it should be purely professional where the journalist recognizes you as a professional and you, in return, don’t ask for any personal favours on behalf of your client.
We all love to talk about strategy, creating and generating ideas that will make media run behind the story, but frankly this rarely happens. We may create a good story idea, but we will first go and pitch to those journalists whom we know personally. There are many unlucky souls who are yet to build any media relationships and are directly thrown in the sea to fish for themselves. What they end up doing is nothing but a tele-caller’s job of calling the journalists and try to sell a story or an idea. You can actually match the tone of a Credit Card tele caller and the poor PR professional calling the journalists. Most of the time, almost all PR agency professionals up to the level of Account Managers go through this daily. Some end up getting ridiculed by the media guys and some do manage to break the ice and start their journey of building relationships.
The expectation to get the job done based on relationships is so deep rooted that even your CEO will force you to get the story done via xyz journalist who had been your ex-colleague and so forth. It is so much within us that even after spending so many years in the business, and after giving tons of gyan on professionalism, even I have pressurized my poor agency partners to get the stories done on the basis of relationships.
The reasons to this can be many, some of which I can think of are as follows, you can add more based on your personal experiences
1) There is one journalist, covering a particular beat and 100 PR professionals running behind his life to get his attention. So whatever works helps, right from a good story idea, your friendship with him, your charm, to your begging, pleading or plain persuasion skills.
2) Traditionally, we have been working in the same manner. In the very initial stage we were simply liaising officers, greasing palms of journalists on behalf of large corporates. Hence the tradition still continues but now with some sophistication and in pockets. (I am not generalizing and claiming that all of us dive so deep down)
Until this attitude continues, we will always be termed as Spin Masters or terms similar to this. We need to leave this stigma behind and behave as professionals. We should stop entertaining such requests from our clients and bosses and help them understand the true value of our profession. We have to grow our understanding of the client’s business to a level where we become their senses and make them aware of the dangers facing their business by effectively scanning the business environment, learning the industry trends, and forecasting what action of the client may harm or benefit the business.
On the other hand, we need to work along with the media as their business partners. Convince them to work on the story on basis of the merit of the story suggested, basis the knowledge and forecasting capabilities that you demonstrate to the journalist. We need to think like them to be able to professionally work with them.
I understand it is easier said than done; there will be a section of media who would expect you to deal with them in the same manner, but some day we need to change so that we get the respect we deserve. PR professionals are not idiots but are smart professionals who are much more capable than any other intellectual professionals working in advertising, business consultancy or research. They are very qualified and now even MBAs from top institutions look at the profession as their future career. I have met many PR professionals who are much smarter than any Editor of a large publication but, sadly, all our equated in the same manner. We need to change and this should start today for a better and respected tomorrow.
I wish I had the courage to tell my interviewer that you needn’t worry about my rapport with journalists because I will get your company featured based on the merit of the story idea I will generate. Wish I can gather the courage to refuse to push for stories without any merit and stand with my agency partners to work and come up with the best possible solution for my client. Because when I will change, I will see the change happening around me.
Would love to hear from here on what you feel and what should be done build our own reputation as professionals.
Written by Vikram Kharvi for Image Management