RAFT’s resident hack, Velo Mitrovich, talks to Kate Chaundy, RAFT’s public relations flak.
Once upon a time, the world of journalism was full of hacks and all was well. This wasn’t the name reporters called themselves, but what those in power called them with contempt. However, reporters being reporters, in a rare moment of sobriety when the pub was closed for fumigating, they elected to wear the name like a medal.
But then, some wise corporate president realised that the best way of deflecting all the flak hurled at him from hacks, would be to hire his own team of hacks. Thus public relations was born and one of the world’s greatest feuds began: hacks vs flaks.
Kate, will you think less of me if I tell you I once was a flak for Thames Valley Police? This is, a course, something I’ve kept secret from my children. How did you get into PR?
I’m impressed with you!
I suppose I fell into PR. I come from a family of journalists; my dad was head of obituaries at the BBC for 20 years and is now freelance and my sister works for The Independent newspaper. I thought it was what I wanted to do but I decided to apply for PR work experience as it seemed to offer a more stable career. I was offered a job at an agency in Cambridge within a week. I trained in music PR and loved every minute of it as it offered me so many opportunities. After a few years I decided to become freelance and now specialise in the health and lifestyle industries. However, I really enjoy the writing aspects of the job and blog regularly on various issues and topics.
I joke about hacks vs flaks but the truth is, todays media is heavily dependent on public relations. Indeed, it is estimated on the financial pages of newspapers and magazines that at least 60% of all stories are generated from PR releases. Do you see this as something bad?
I don’t see it as a bad thing as long as the PR has spent time putting together a release that is accurate and structured accordingly, and the journalist has extracted the news elements from it and written an informative and well-researched piece.
Our job at the end of the day is to inform journalists of interesting angles relating to our clients and I think the statistic shows that this works more often than not. Obviously our press releases are going to be exhibiting the best sides of our client and so it is down to the journalist to read around the subject and extract the information that they need.
Journalists now are busier than ever and unfortunately in the current climate news rooms are emptier than they have ever been. With rolling news, corresponding websites and video content they need as much help from PRs as possible in order to stay ahead of the game. The age-long battle between PRs and journalists can be quite complex and of course journalists hate lazy PRs just as PRs can find it frustrating when a journalist wants you to pen the article for them because they are too busy.
Things are certainly quite different to how they used to be, especially with the incredible rise of social media where now citizens are acting-journalists and it has never been so easy to express your views to a mass audience. We even now often communicate with journalists via Twitter! Providing each respects the other’s role and does the job properly, the relationships shouldn’t just work, they should work brilliantly. Where the role of PR has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades is that in high-profile cases, the PR can be as famous as the client themselves, and the power they have can be hugely influential.
When I was a reporter in Hong Kong, I had a wonderful relationship with PR managers, especially those with Don Perignon champagne. The reality is, without my ties to PR managers it would have been next to impossible to do my job, mostly because we were understaffed and I looked to the PR managers as experts – or with ties to experts – in very specific fields. In a way, is this what you do for RAFT?
Absolutely. I bridge the gap between the charity and the media, whether health, science, lifestyle, charity or local journalists who may never come across RAFT or learn about the exciting things it achieves.
Working with charities you come across many case studies who are approached to speak to the media and the wonderful role of a PR is that we can get to know these people and explain in detail how the process works without them feeling too overwhelmed.
Rather than negotiating directly with a journalist, who they may not trust, they can dictate to us their preferences in pictures, in quotes and the tone of the piece and we can then negotiate with the media to ensure we get as close to this as possible, and consequently a great piece that is inspiring and raises awareness of the cause.
People often suspect PRs as wine and diners that spend most of their time in private members clubs buying their way into a journalist’s hearts and news agendas, or awkward and argumentative dictators who butt in every time a journalist asks a question to protect the interests of the client. But this is not the case.
When I worked in music PR in Cambridge I didn’t have the luxury of being able to pop out and meet a journalist for coffee or take them to lunch in Chelsea, even though that was very much the ‘culture’ then, we had to rely on perfected pitches and strong press releases to do the talking. I’m grateful for that experience as I’ve always known the results were the product of hard work that has paid off and my relationships with journalists are not at all compromised.
At RAFT my job is one of communications, which is pretty much what PR people do as well. I take the very complicated and try to make it so the average person can understand and appreciate what we’re doing. How is your job similar and how is it different from mine?
It varies. If I am putting together a scientific press release on a project, such as the artificial skin scaffold, we have to think about the different audiences that we are approaching. So for a science editor, we can afford to keep it quite technical as they are going to understand the process far more easily and be able to question points with experts from the charity that we provide.
If we want to pitch it from a lifestyle angle to a glossy women’s magazine we need to tap into the human interest side of things and detail how this treatment can change someone’s life and the lives of wound victims in the future. Therefore, we would need to work in simplifying the release so that it can be easily understood by a non-medical journalist but for them to understand how it works and why it is so revolutionary.
Your role is crucial to ours as we need to thoroughly understand the projects before we can pitch and that often means someone like you going over the details with us to ensure we have grasped it before speaking to the media.
I always picture a PR manager having a phone with a thousand speed dial keys on it (I do live in the dark ages of communication). Your day is spent constantly on the phone, pitching ideas for your clients. Is this what you do?
I’d say it is around 50% of what we do, yes. We divide the project up into various stages, for example, local press, national newspapers, national magazines, trade press, online, etc. There’s nothing better than calling up a journalist at a national publication and confidently selling it [pushing the story] whilst discussing and brainstorming about different angles and how it would work for the publication.
Over time, we have learnt the different preferences of various journalists and so we can call them and tailor the pitch to suit their style. With the huge rise in freelance journalists and bloggers, we are always meeting new writers and so we spend a lot of time calling them and learning about their journalistic interests for future reference.
The rest of our job involves client liaison, report writing, speaking to case studies, handling social media, organising events and thinking of new ways in which to publicise the client. It is a very varied job where no two days are the same and it’s fantastic to be able to work with such inspirational clients, such as RAFT.