Press okay if you want to join in…

I’ve had a trying day – without wishing to name-drop it’s involved the lovely David Jason and the besieged Heston Blumenthal, not in the same place, but almost at the same time.

At the very end of July I was commissioned to write for a new food book – not a great time to start phoning up harvesting farmers and holidaying restaurateurs, who traditionally take a break in the summer. Still, it was, is and will be, a lovely addition to bookshelves and kitchens the nation over, and it’s being brought out by  an award-winning publisher, so I pressed on, despite only having five weeks in the summer holidays to complete it. Most people I approached to be in it were thrilled to be asked. Though they’re regularly acknowledged for being among our nation’s best producers (some had received stamps of approval from Rose Prince and Rick Stein, I found out afterwards) they recognise good publicity has a knock-on effect and no-one can afford to be complacent in these cost-cutting, cash-stricken times.

But in the same week that an international picture agency were trying to sting a colleague for mistakenly using an un-invoiced-for image (it’s a long story, I’m not going there – but their approach is pretty short-sighted if they want future business from him and his account is worth thousands to them each year) I’ve found myself chasing, chasing and chasing again a particular PR company for client photographs. Perhaps their client, the aforementioned Mr Blumenthal, didn’t need the good publicity, I thought, as I fired off yet another e-mail and made yet another phone call. A final post-deadline stand-off ensued, more of which below, resulting in me taking my bat home – I’d write about someone else, I said, as I metaphorically stalked off the pitch.

In fact, I wasn’t on a pitch at all and that, at least, contributed to my huffiness. I was being corralled into a side room at a very posh venue while waiting to interview the adorable Mr, actually Sir, David Jason. My fellow journos and I (including the Beeb, ITV’s Meridian News and local radio) having been promised lunch and a bit of an interview, if we waited through the charity speeches and congratulations, were offered not terribly appetising sandwiches (which were eaten by our minders) and told to stay in our room while the real guests, the ones that we weren’t allowed to mingle with in case we ate all their canapés, got on with the job of networking. I started to feel like a teenager; I wanted to stamp my feet, slam doors and stomp out of the room. I rang my office, found a terse e-mail had been sent telling me not to include Mr Blumenthal, and contented myself with phoning his people (and my publisher) and telling them I’d be writing about the Roux brothers and their sons instead.

Well, despite everything I’m glad I waited for Sir David. He’s as delightful in real life as he is on screen. Okay – the charity was a good cause and all that, so no-one was going to write a bad news story on the back of it, but treating the press like pariahs when you also want a bit of good publicity doesn’t buy you a few extra column inches, or airtime, or goodwill. A couple of the news journos were getting dangerously close to deadline and wondering how they were going to edit their takes, drive to a studio and get on air with what little time they had left. I wondered if I’d want to return to next year’s event, for a freelance job on a flat fee it took five hours, not including travel time and involved an awful lot of frustration.

When I’d finished with Sir David (and I can’t emphasise what a pro he is – charming, accommodating and polite, despite obviously being tired at the end of his busy day) there was a phone message on my mobile. It was Heston’s PR company explaining that the earlier e-mail had been a mistake and their client would like to be in the book after all.

It seems that all’s well that ends well. But a little bit of preaching to PR and marketing companies. Be nice if you’ve got the press asking you for a good news story, even if you don’t want to participate this time you may want them some other time, and you never know who is going to be in charge of the magazine or newspaper you approach in the future and how good their memory is. There are easy ways of saying politely, thanks, but no thanks, we’re too busy, or it’s not a good time for us. Positive press is generally acknowledged to be worth 10 times its size in advertising. Bad publicity? You do the maths.

A good publicist ought to know the difference without a single word from me but you’d be surprised at how many haven’t got the message yet…

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