A small-business shorthand for successful press coverage
A writer from a business magazine called me recently for my comments on the hatred all journalists harbour towards PR professionals. I felt horribly inadequate. I do not hate PRs. They sell messages to the media rather than products or services to consumers or companies, but they are still salespeople. And sales is the fundamental activity of business. It deserves a louder hurrah than it gets.
The distrust many journalists feel towards PRs reflects their belief that the only decent story is one the protagonist does not want them to tell. That complicates the job of publicity-hungry business owners, by dictating that a keenness to communicate is interpreted as a symptom of having nothing to say.
To make things easier, here are some tips, offered without the eye-watering fee a financial spin doctor would charge. I may be blackballed from the Royal Society of Small Business Scribblers for disclosing trade secrets. But this is my 99th column and that makes a man feel reckless.
Public company bosses cannot avoid talking to the press if they want to project a positive image to their shareholders. Private entrepreneurs have it easier. You can pop out of purdah to publicise expansion, a deal, or a product whenever you like. If business is going poorly, you can simply ignore calls from reporters. Without such underpinnings as profits warnings or tumbling shares, critical stories are hard to stand up.
有些私有公司的老板故意避开媒体，也没见什么恶果。科尼什(Cornish)家族就是其中一例，他们在2003年以8.6亿美元把旗下的包装公司Linpac出售给他人。而其它一些私有公司的老板，如理查德•布兰森爵士(Sir Richard Branson)，已对媒体曝光形成了不那么得体的嗜好，并将其作为公司商业战略的核心组成部分。这部分反映了个性。但同样重要的是，Linpac公司的客户是其它公司，其销售额不会像布兰森的维珍(Virgin)这种消费者集团那样得益于大众媒体的曝光。另外，许多初出茅庐的企业家相信，新闻报道有助于初创企业吸引投资者，于是他们把新闻剪报附在商业计划里。
Some private business owners, such as the Cornish family who sold their packaging business Linpac for £860m in 2003, eschew media contact without ill-effect. Others, such as Sir Richard Branson, have made a quite unseemly appetite for coverage central to their commercial strategy. Partly this reflects personalities. Equally, the sales of a company such as Linpac, whose customers are other businesses, benefit less from mass media exposure than a consumer group such as Virgin. Many fledgling entrepreneurs meanwhile believe press coverage will validate their start-ups with potential investors, and accordingly attach their cuttings to their business plans.
The spiel of PR company rainmakers is that PR delivers public esteem more efficiently than advertisements. They claim editorial coverage is cheaper to obtain and is believed more whole-heartedly than advertising copy. The unemphasised downside is unpredictability. A while ago I wrote a short report based on a company press release. The next day the managing director called me. “Thanks for printing our release,” he said, “but please don’t change the words next time”. That is the problem with us journalists. We change the words. As a result, a communiqué innocently titled “Whizzco Targets Fast-Growing Database Market” can be transmuted into a magazine article headlined “Struggling Whizzco Quits Peripherals Market in Disarray”.
Broadly, there are two kinds of financial PR consultant. One type is senior and smoothly charming, yet emits disturbing whiffs of brimstone. His duties include phoning journalists to mention, entre nous, that a company boss whose interests conflict with his client’s was defrocked as a priest in 1979. The other type is junior and has the bouncy, unfocused eagerness of a red setter puppy. If female, she is a nice girl who had rather hoped to work for Sotheby’s. If male, he is a younger son of a good family that in times past would have sent him to the colonies to make his fortune or contract an exotic disease.
商业记者较难归类。公平地讲，我们中几乎无人是在实现儿时的梦想。如果你在宴会上告诉某人你是个记者，你会引起他人的兴趣。但如果你接着告诉人家你是一名商业记者，那么之前的兴趣就会即刻消失。在多数人看来，商业记者听起来和品性不端的会计师差不多。我们成为商业记者的道路不尽相同。以我为例，当年在英格兰Blackpool市的Tower Ballroom舞厅，如果我能通过面试，成功演奏Mighty Wurlitzer管风琴，现在我就不会在此和你说话了。
Business writers are harder to categorise. It is fair to say that few of us are realising a childhood dream. Tell someone at a dinner party you are a journalist and you provoke flickers of interest. You can quickly quench these by explaining you are a business journalist. To most people that just sounds like a louche accountant. We arrive at our profession by multiple routes. I, for example, would not be addressing you now had I passed the audition to play the Mighty Wurlitzer twice nightly in the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool.
What unites business journalists is the need to piece together compelling stories from the chaos of commercial life. You are more likely to get the write-up you want if you can present interviewers with a ready-made narrative rather than a jumble of facts, figures and anecdotes. The entrepreneurial success story is, helpfully, a well-developed genre.
Ideally you should either come from a background of lofty privilege or grinding poverty. Royal friends and polo-playing skill guarantee you column inches in many publications. You can make as good a thing of being raised by loving but illiterate Traveller folk in a leaky caravan.
If your background is shamingly ordinary, never mind. You can still provide reporters with that sine qua non of the entrepreneur’s yarn, the eureka moment. Explain how the revelation of vast untapped demand for monogrammed hearing aids hit you in the bath. A crushing setback, pluckily overcome, is a good plot motif to carry the yarn forward. The order or capital injection that saved your business should materialise, like the Ninth Cavalry, at the last gasp. From there it is an easy canter into recounting your current success and plans for future world domination.
Dealing with a journalist is ultimately just another business transaction, a kind of cashless trading. You pay for exposure by providing information that can be turned into good copy. Critics say corporate PR spending represents a concealed subsidy to the media, that business compromises the objectivity of journalists by spoon-feeding them material. My hunch is that PR is merely a counterweight to the media’s strong, commercially driven appetite for bad news. The result would be coverage with the right balance, if for the wrong reasons.