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A PR person is jerking one of my writers around.

We're trying to get comment for a story critical of a company. The PR person sent my writer a multi-paragraph statement "on background."

"On background" does not have a standard definition. It's a phrase used by people who like to pretend to be professional journalists.

So my writer inquired what "on background" means. The PR person said we can't publish the comment in any way.

So why the hell did you send it to us? What do you expect us to do with it?

This only comes up with PR people who work for companies with greater than $1 billion revenue, because that kind of cushion of money allows folks like those PR people to build a nice layer protecting themselves from reality.

You may well ask: Why don't we just use it anyway? The answer is that the statement is completely useless unless it's attributed to the company sending it, because it is bland corporate tapioca.
Andrew McCarthy's profile photoJulia G Brown's profile photoChuq Von Rospach's profile photoDennis McCunney's profile photo
Post it here on Google+! Best of all, because it's on Google+, not many people will read it!
You offered them an opportunity to make meaningful comment on an ariticle critical of them. They punted. If they complain after the fact, you can prove you asked for comment, and what they sent you was both meaningless and not for publication. Tough. Deal with it.

People like that need to be force fed a copy of Robert Townsend's Up the Organization, a memoir of his days running Avis rent-a-car in the "We Try Harder" days. Townsend had some pointed comments about how companies ought to respond to news stories, and that sort of response was exactly what he thought you shouldn't do.
I've noticed an increasing number of PR people whose goal, it seems, is to communicate neither with press nor with public.

As an example, one company I worked for, the PR people were proud of that. They weren't about comms, they said, they were about "crafting the message". A handful of releases each year with the usual "For more information contact..."

Of course, they never answered the phone, or replied to an email. "That's not how it is done," they said. I pointed out that the press releases game names and contact information for followups. "That is how it is done," they said.

Since those days, I've found an increasing number of PR folks who simply won't communicate (beyond posting on PRweb, say) with anyone external to the company.
+Dennis McCunney I have no doubt that we did what we could to be fair to the company. I'm just pissed that they wasted my writer's and my time.
as a 20+ year PR professional, the purpose of background conversations was for journalists and communications professionals to have complete conversations on a topic to convey and ensure understanding of an issue and that the company's position on that issue was clear. then any comment provided by the company in the foreground would be what went on the record. I always considered it a privilege to have open and forthright conversations for the purpose of understanding with responsible Journalists, while protecting the company from some of the tricky liabilities of public comment. I hope the issue is less about that and more just about lousy communications people who don't know how to do their jobs.
+Andrew McCarthy The issue is that the flak kissed first, then asked permission. I used to deal with these "pros" all the time. Without asking, they'd send me some news but mark it "under embargo," as if those two words were a magic talisman. For the record, they ain't.
how about including a note in the story that "company foo was asked for a comment, and they did respond to us, but then told us that we couldn't use the response. Which is okay, because it was content free". because they told you not to use the statement, but there's no reason you can't say you asked them for one and got it, but not permission to actually say what it was...
I'm happy to honour an embargo, if asked, before or after I'm sent materials - right up to the nanosecond that the information becomes public by some other means.

The moment it does, bets are off.
+Chuq Von Rospach I've done that a few times. I'm not sure it really worked out all that well.

... I know your name. Well, yes, obviously it is a distinctive one. Maybe that's it. Or we met once. Hmm.
oh, yeah. what I suggested is definitely a conscious decision to burn a bridge by doing what they told you to do, in a way that makes the point how stupid it was. But if they're a useless source, sometimes that can be helpful later. And if not, at least you can have fun watching them get righteously indignant in your direction.
+Andrew McCarthy As a journalist with 25+ years' experience, I find those kinds of conversations a complete waste of time. I felt the same way when I had 1-minus years of experience and my opinion hasn't changed. I'll do it to humor someone who might be valuable in the future, but it's not helpful.

In this case, the PR person wasted all our time on the background and we have no time to do the on-the-record conversation anymore.
+Mitch Wagner You have every right to be pissed off and my point was to agree with you.

To clarify, I always considered background conversations opportunities to clarify facts as the term or notion implies. Answering questions vs. spinning a yarn, but in a capacity where I wasn't necessarily going to be quoted. Especially in the case of things like earnings news, acquisitions, layoffs, etc. that can be a useful mechanism for answering questions. Not dissimilar to fact checking.

FWIW, the last time I ran PR (at a fairly prominent SaaS startup), we completely eliminated embargos. Our goal was to provide information to those interested in the most transparent and authentic way possible. Worked better than any mechanism I've ever seen.

One of the reasons I got out of PR is because of what you're describing. Practiced badly, it attempts to control, pitch, and spin. Not fun, and not particularly interesting either.
+Ellis Booker embargoes are silly. I can't even comprehend why a PR person in today's communication and media environment would even bother.
With 32+ years on both sides of the fence -- mostly PR -- I would say poor cooperation from PR persons has most to do with them being amateurs with sparse experience and education. It also appeared more often when a huge-ego boss was driving the bus, rather than how big (or fancy) the bus was.
I have some sympathy for embargos, but they have been so abused by some companies it's sad. And some press folks have taken breaking them to an art form AND companies don't retaliate, which means in practice, companies condone it. And for companies that do that, well, don't expect me to behave, either...
+Mitch Wagner I have no doubt that we did what we could to be fair to the company.

Nor do I. You're a responsible journalist of long experience, and responsible journalists do their best to be fair and balanced.

I'm just pissed that they wasted my writer's and my time.

I would be too. But serves them right if they are unhappy with the coverage when they could have responded to set the record straight if they thought you weren't.
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