The Six Don’t’s of Public Relations

As a journalist, there’s not enough adequate words to describe good publicists and public relation specialists. To date, they’ve afforded me the chance to enhance the storytelling experience by providing awesome facts, great supplied photos or photo opps, interesting story proposals and dozens of other things that just make my job easier. I see each PR rep I work with as an extension of the magazine staff; it’s a family, and there’s an unofficial understanding that we’re in it together.

And just like every family, there’s that damn black sheep. For all the great PR reps I work with, there’s unfortunately an equal amount of really sucky ones. You know, the ones where you wonder how they even manage to log on to their bank accounts, spell their names correctly (much less their clients’ names) or accurately write words longer than four letters.

Those folks sour the taste journalists have for PR reps. Journalists, perhaps more than any other profession, despise incompetence. We thrive on a fast-pace, dynamic environment where everyone strives to work efficiently and accurately. Conversely, we can’t stand ineptitude. I try my best to work at a professional level and pace, and I only ask for the same in return. With all that goes on in a day (I’m managing editor for 10 publications), it’s great knowing when you have someone to rely on. And it’s equally unsettling when you know you don’t.

I know what you’re thinking: Oh, here’s another spoiled journalist who probably has a master’s degree in entitlement. Well, you wouldn’t be too far off. I am spoiled. (And I’m a few credits shy of that aforementioned degree.) I’m absolutely spoiled and overly lucky to work with so many fantastic public relations representatives who understand the importance of our pseudo-familial relationship. And who are damn good at their jobs.

But this blog entry isn’t about them. This one is about all the buffoons and airheads who’ve committed error after error in their jobs. And, here are six actual examples – completely not embellished or fabricated – of PR snafus I’ve seen over the years.

1. ‘So what magazine do you work for?’
For several weeks I worked with this one publicist to find a way to promote one of her clients. The client, a sports star, and his team had been on my radar for some time. As luck had it, the publicist called me up out of the blue asking if I wanted to interview him. What luck, I thought. I’m getting this interview gift wrapped and delivered to me on a beautiful silver platter.

We conversed via phone and e-mail for several weeks, at times on a daily basis. I interviewed the subject, we did a photo shoot, and things were looking pretty good. A week after the interview, the publicist asked me to send her some copies of our old magazines to show around the office. Sure, I said. Then I get this phone call from her a few days after I sent the magazines out:

“Hi Nila. This is [name withheld],” she started.

“Hi there,” I replied.

“Um, I have a question for you,” she stated, a little hesitation in her voice.

“Sure, ask away,” I encouraged.

“Um, I received the magazines you mailed, but I thought you worked for [blank blank] magazine,” she inquired. “Why didn’t I get those magazines?

“Uh … no, that’s a competing publication,” I replied, completely surprised.

“Oh, so what magazine do you work for?” she asked.

Ouch. If this was a tennis match, this publicist would have a point of hers taken off the scoreboard.

Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you who don’t know, let me tell you right now that after five weeks of conversing with a publication’s editorial team, setting up interviews and photo opportunities for your client, this was not the time to ask what magazine I work for. If this isn’t covered in PR 101, then I don’t know what the hell is.

2. Not knowing diddly-squat about our magazine.
A few years ago I was lucky enough to be offered a chance to take a Zero Gravity flight and report about it. Pretty cool, eh? Well, not that cool if you take into account the genius of a PR rep I worked with who gave me more troubles than anything else.

After I accepted her invitation, the PR rep sent me all the logistical information to the flight, i.e., where to go, what time to arrive, what to bring, etc. When I saw where the flight was taking off – Titusville, Fla. – I thought, “Hmmm … Not exactly in my backyard [Fort Lauderdale], but I’m happy to make the drive for this opportunity.” And so I did. I drove the 200 miles up there by myself on a Saturday, knowing this was not a chance I wanted to miss and extremely appreciative to have been offered this chance.

I arrived 30 minutes early. I walked up to the Zero Gravity attendant and told them my name.

“Oh, shoot,” he said after flipping through the pages on his clipboard. “You missed your flight. You were suppose to be here three hours ago.”

Three hours ago??? How could that be, I asked. I showed him my print out and the PR rep’s e-mail message saying to arrive at this time for my noon flight. Everything I received from this rep stated I needed to arrive for my noon flight, not 9 a.m. one.

“Well, I have you down for the 9 a.m. flight, ma’am,” he said helplessly. “And that flight has already taken off, and the noon flight is completely booked, and there are no other flights. I’m sorry, but we can’t accommodate you today.”

So I just drove some 200 miles up here for nothing? Am I being punk’d right now?

Deflated, and completely bummed not to experience the Zero Gravity experience, I drove the 200 miles back home.

When I got into the office on Monday, guess who called me. Yep, that lovely PR rep who doesn’t know the difference between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m.

“I’m so sorry about what happened,” she apologized meekly. “I can put you on another Zero Gravity flight. There’s one traveling out of Fort Lauderdale next week.”

“Fort Lauderdale?” I asked incredulously. “Why didn’t you tell me about this flight before? I could have taken this one all along. It would have saved me 200 miles of driving.”

Then, something just clicked for me.

“Do you know where our publication is based?” I inquired pointedly.

“Uhhhhhhh … Titusville?” she asked, completely not confident of her own answer.

That’s when it hit me that I was dealing with a complete idiot this entire time.

“I know you’re still upset, Ms. Do,” she said. “So in addition to the Fort Lauderdale flight, I’d love to send you a book about space travel that’s signed by the author.”

Oh, it just gets better and better, doesn’t it? Yes, a book on a topic that I have little to no interest in will totally make up for it. And it’s going to be signed?? Oh joy. This girl is a freakin’ real-life Santa Claus, isn’t she?

So a few days later I received that coveted autographed space travel book, no doubt with a forged signature by the genius of a PR rep I had been dealing with.

3. Getting my name wrong. Consistently.
Listen, I get it. My name isn’t all that conventional. “Nila Do” isn’t quite the same as “Jennifer Smith.” But if you’re looking to pull favors and get on my good side, consistently mispronouncing my name after I’ve told you how to say it or incorrectly writing my name in an e-mail or letter won’t win you too many points. Here are some of my favorite ways PR reps have misspelled my name over the years:

Nila Donaldson
Nilla Doe
Nyla Do
Twila Don
Dila Do
Nilad Do
Nilo Do
Myla Dou

To this day, I STILL receive letters and packages addressed to my predecessor. And, she hasn’t worked here for more than six years.

4. The fearful “Dear XXXX” gets sent.
We all do it. You know, write a mass e-mail initially addressed to “XXXX” who works at “XXXX” organization, and then once you’re done writing the crux of the message, just fill in the “XXXX” with real names. Well, too many times I actually receive the intact, not-at-all customized “Dear XXXX” e-mail from a PR rep hoping to promote his or her client in “XXXX” magazine.

The way I view it, it’s a complete display of carelessness that shows I am one of the trillions of other publications you are seeking coverage in. Way to make me and your client feel special.

Another time I actually received an e-mail that began “Dear Travis.” Last time I checked, my name wasn’t Travis. Nor is it my nickname, nom de plume or pseudonym. So guess what: I hit the reply button and said, “Hi [name withheld]. My name is Nila, and I’m not sure if you meant to send this to me or Travis. Hopefully Travis didn’t get the e-mail intended for me.”

5. Not getting the message.
We all appreciate a follow-up phone call or e-mail message here and there. You never know if us editors and journalists need a little nudge or reminder about an e-mail you sent last week. But if it’s your third or fourth follow-up message and you haven’t heard from me, just know that: yes, I did receive your e-mail, so it must mean one of a few things:

A. Your pitch doesn’t fall in line with our editorial. We’re not going to print it.
B. Your pitch doesn’t fall in line with our editorial. We’re not going to print it.
C. Your pitch doesn’t fall in line with our editorial. We’re not going to print it.
D. Your pitch doesn’t fall in line with our editorial. We’re not going to print it.

If I had to guess, I probably receive 350 e-mails a day, and I feel bad, but it’s hard for me to reply to each of the messages I receive. That said, hopefully silence speaks volumes.

6. Using poor spelling and grammar.
We can’t help it. Journalists are those people who will notice if you’re incorrectly using “towards” instead of the correct “toward” in your press release. We cringe every time someone writes or says “Please give John or I a call” instead of “Please give John or me a call,” or puts the comma outside the quotation mark, or writes “meat me here” instead of “meet me here.”

We can blame it on texting, auto-correct, tweeting or the public school systems (or in my case, dyslexia), but to me, there’s no excuse in not being able to look up a word in the dictionary for accuracy prior to hitting the “send” button. Here’s my favorite e-mail written to me by a PR rep:

“Hi Im XXXX with the Public Relations department at XXXXXX and i was just inquiring about a copy of your 2011 editorial calendar for XXXXXX Magazine. If at all possible i would like a copy for our reference here.”

Good god. How hard is it to capitalize “i”?! Don’t you just hit the “shift” key and “i” simultaneously?

So there you go, six examples of poor PR correspondence. Putting it in perspective, it’s not like any of these lackluster performances were fatal. But I still hope that you and XXXX enjoyed reading this post.

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