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Vanita Kohli-Khandekar: About PR and journalism

In the middle of two stereotypes thousands of journalists and PR people quietly do their jobs in getting information and analyses out to readers

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar  |  New Delhi 

About six years back I did a cover story on Nokia for Businessworld. It was a complicated story. Nokia was doing very well, but it looked set to slide. The public relations (PR) agency serving the Nokia account at that time assigned somebody to coordinate my meetings. Jyoti (Arora) figured out the exact sequence of interviews I would like — marketing and distribution heads first and the others later, followed by the CEO. She had long chats with me about the company adding to my pile of research by digging out numbers and charts from within the company. At no point did she try to suggest an ‘angle’ or steer the interviews in any direction.

The story worked out well. Jyoti did the job that a good PR person does — facilitated the story, with co-ordination and research support. This helped me focus on reading up tonnes of material and getting the most out of the two dozen-odd interviews I had within and outside the firm.

This is an example I use whenever the whole subject of the somewhat tattered relationship between journalists and PR people comes up. There are many such stories with happy endings from my 19 years as a working business journalist.

There are others that did not end well. Some PR people are too obsequious, others are rude. Like the PR person for Samsung who would not get back on anything in spite of several reminders, recently. Similarly, there are unprofessional journalists who are late and unprepared for interviews. My favourite is the one about a journalist asking the CEO of a listed company, what its revenues were. At such times I want to hide my face or deny any affiliation to the profession.

The point is, there are an equal number of good and bad apples on both sides. It is no different from medicine or architecture or any other profession where the good, bad and mediocre all survive. Why then is this relationship so fraught?

You could argue that the nature of the relationship lends itself to friction — like a mother-in-law, daughter-in-law one. This is accentuated by bad training and cultural differences. Take the first. Very often, journalists are ill-trained. They don’t research well and end up asking foolish questions which irritate senior managers on the client side. The managers in turn blame the PR for not doing their job well, and so it goes.

Similarly, ill-trained PR people do not do their homework on the journalist in question. For instance I have rarely come across an interviewee who has been briefed by a PR person on the interviewer. So the CEO of a digital cinema company will spend 10-15 minutes explaining what digital cinema is. Since I already know that and have written about it several times, all I can do is listen politely when we could be moving on to the key points of the meeting. This however is not as bad as PR people suggesting that you do a story from a certain angle or point of view. That irritates most good journalists.

Much of this could easily be sorted out through good training. For various reasons, parsimony included, training is the last thing on anyone’s agenda — media owners or PR firms.

The second is a cultural difference. Many journalists think that it is their right to demand and expect freebies — such as lifts to the place of meeting, junkets to a foreign launch or gifts during New Year and Diwali. It is not their right. Unfortunately, most media companies in India shy away from stating the dos and don’ts clearly, in writing.

This leaves enough room for jostling between journalists and PR people. And this alone is enough for journalism to earn the contempt of the public relations industry. There are others. Journalists have the reputation of being ill-clad, ill-behaved people looking for a free drink. They can be used to plant a story or a point of view. Many journalists simply pass on a well-written press release as a news report and editors turn a blind eye to it.

PR on the other hand has earned the reputation of being a profession that either is about sucking up to journalists or blocking their access to top management.

In the middle of these two stereotypes thousands of journalists and public relations people quietly do their jobs in getting information and analyses out to you. They hold the torch for half-decent, good and at times brilliant content for millions of readers, viewers and surfers. They also bear the burden of the stereotyping. Here’s to them.

First Published: Tue, October 25 2011. 00:44 IST