Last week I sent a query to a PR agency looking to interview someone about a study they'd done.
A couple days later, the PR agency's PR guy called me. He was still reading my query, which contained a link to this piece, telling my readers about the study and its somewhat preposterous promise to bring a "big data" approach to help leaders make better speeches. (The agency had “analyzed more than 100,000 presentations from corporate executives, politicians and keynote speakers," the study claimed.)
How could he help me? the PR guy wanted to know.
Um, as I explained in my email, I wanted to interview someone there. About the study. I named a specific agency executive who would be right for my audience.
He said he'd talk to the agency's bosses to see if they were interested in our possibly "working together" on this project.
No, not working together, I specified. I'm a journalist and my audience of professional speechwriters is particularly interested in this study. So I want to write about it, or alternatively, publish something the agency wanted to write about it.
"Oh, I think I see—you're trying to drive traffic to your site?"
Well, yes: I guess as a journalist, I'm always trying to drive traffic to my site. That's the traffic I presumed the agency was trying to get access to by doing a study and publicizing it. No?
But that old-school quid pro quo wasn't enough for this guy.
He wanted to be on more equal moral terrain than consultant vs. trade journalist. And to achieve this leveling, he didn't seem to want his agency's status elevated to think-tank status; rather, he seemed to want me to acknowledge that I had low motives too.
Beginning to feel like a time traveler on roofies, I indicated that, Yeah: I have an audience full of people who might be potential clients for the agency, if the agency's research seems valid and useful to them. (Did a PR guy for a PR agency that does PR consulting for PR people not understand the concept of publicity?)
The guy said he didn't make the decisions around there and his bosses are pretty busy—"is there a deadline or anything like that?"—but he'd run my query by them and let me know if they were interested—
"I know," I said. "In working together."
I'll let you know if the guy gets back to me. So far, nothing.
This isn't the first time I've been shocked by PR people not seeming even to understand the ostensible role of a journalist in an industry or a society. Writing Boots readers will remember that a couple years ago I covered a PR trade association critically and journalistically during a period of crisis. Even though I was the only journalist writing reporting regularly on the issue, the association brass and board repeatedly told me that what I should really be doing, if I disagreed with the course the association was taking, was joining up and volunteering to help the group out. I repeatedly explained that my role as a journalist—detailing its problems to its otherwise unseeing membership, which came to my website in hordes—was its own contribution in making the association better. They—professional PR people—seemed honestly bewildered by the notion.
Journalists and PR people have long been sometime friends and sometime rivals. But they haven't been mystified by one another the way we seem to be right now.
This state of affairs cannot be good.