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Meet the Media: Peter Whitehead on PR

Written by Paul Stallard
Source: Peter Whitehead

Source: Peter Whitehead

Continuing my ‘Meet the Media’ series I was lucky enough to pin Peter Whitehead the editor of FT’s Digital Business section down and ask him a few questions about the best way to approach him, his top tips for PR professionals and the long term future of hard copy publications.

Peter has answered with some interesting points but he has also illustrated that certain sections of our industry is continuing to make elementary mistakes. If you are a PR professional, please read the answers below before you pick up the phone to the guitar wielding Mr Whitehead.

Name: Peter Whitehead
Title: Editor of the FT’s Digital Business section

Paul Stallard: Do you think that most PR professionals read your section in the FT before contacting you?
Peter Whitehead: I think the vast majority that contact me are familiar with the section and very expert on the sector, or at least their bit of it. There are odd exceptions, of course, and they stick out a mile.

PS: What is your pet hate of PR?
PW: Phoning to tell me they’ve sent an e-mail. I’m pretty much a one-man band and so have to use just one communication channel and e-mail is the one that works best. Also, it’s annoying whenPRs ask for information that is already freely available on the website – usually who’s writing a particular piece. It means that if I can’t remember I have to look it up – just as they could have done in the first place.

PS: What is the best way to contact you?
PW: E-mail – I can check it anytime anywhere, and I can deal with it when I have time free from editing, writing, recording podcasts, writing synopses, reading proofs, tweeting, playing the guitar, etc etc

PS: Have you ever done any PR work and if yes what was the experience like?

PW: No. My friend Martin Waller in his Times City Diary described the PR function as “to pour the drinks and say ‘I’ll get back to you on that one'”. I know it’s not as easy as that.

PS: What is your top tip for PR professionals?
PW: Be original and practical. Eg – the “mobility challenge” that a PR agency came to us with. It was well thought-out between them and the client. Originality is the key.

PS: How many emails / calls do you get a day?
PW: Hundreds of e-mails and I used to get non-stop phone calls until I decided I couldn’t answer my phone any more and still do any work – especially as the questions I was answering were almost all the same. So I now have a message that points callers to the information they might want – and if it’s anything different, it advises them to e-mail. Since then, the number of calls has dropped dramatically.

PS: How has the increase of social media affected traditional journalism?
PW: Big question, lots of answers. News: it now happens first on Twitter or facebook, but can often be wrong. Information gathering: the number of sources has exploded, but many are utterly unreliable. Twitter is great for broadcasting information requests; most blogs are dodgy at best.

Journalists now have to be ready to experiment with online, audio, video and social networks in delivering their content – it involves a lot of new skills.

PS: Have you had to change your writing style for online copy to incorporate SEO?
PW: No. But it makes sense to consider SEO when writing headlines etc.

PS: Is there a future long term for hard copy publications or will online rule?
PW: Neither. The future lies in e-paper, although the technology is not yet ready. A piece of scrollable plastic that can be updated during the day and carry a  multitude of pages – from a multitude of media sources – is my bet for how we will read in the future. Paper is too costly, financially and environmentally, to make and distribute, so its days are surely numbered. Plastic will be comfortable, portable, need almost no power and be a sensible size. Give it up to a decade, though.

PS: Bar your own, which news titles do you read?
PW: The Times, The Week, Observer, Evening Standard, local papers, and other nationals when I have time. I never bother with the tabloid “tabloids” – why does anyone?

PS: What is the worst case of PR you have come across?
PW: I was asked if I’d like to interview someone, and eventually and reluctantly agreed. I was then asked about the nature of the questions I’d ask. I was then told my interview request was denied. I feel bad mentioning this because I’ve met and like the PR involved. It was as much misunderstanding as anything – but it’s something to avoid.

PS: Are there any PR agencies you have black listed because of bad practices?
PW: No

PS: What is your favourite restaurant/coffee house for briefings?
PW: The FT canteen is ideal for coffee and fits in with my travel budget. Nearby, I love the Globe Theatre restaurant. In the West End, Alastair Little is always good for lunch, or Langan’s Brasserie (it’s near Green Park station so easy access from the Jubilee Line). Nobu is a real treat.

PS: Do you believe journalists are rude to PR professionals?
PW: Clearly they are – see. But I hope this is an extreme exception. I can understand busy news journalists being short with PRs, especially around deadline time. I fear I could be pretty frosty at times if I answered my phone rather than use e-mail. I do try to reply to as many e-mails as possible but I’ve described it before as a game of tennis in which I am on one side of the net and thousands of PRs are on the other, all hitting balls at me; quite a few are not going to be returned.

Next in the meet the media series are as follows:
Alan Burkitt-Gray, Global Telecoms Business (interview live on 31 March)
Alex Blyth, prolific freelancer for marketing, charity and business titles (interview live on 7 April)
Christine Horton, Channel Pro (interview live on 14 April)

Previous interviews in the meet the media series:
Sally Whittle (17 March)