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Meet the media: Sally Whittle on PR

Written by Paul Stallard
Source:@swhittle on Twitter

Source:@swhittle on Twitter

In the first of a series of meet the media interviews I have conducted with prominent technology journalists, Sally Whittle covers her pet hates of PR, top tips and thoughts on writing with SEO in mind. I have to say that I was delighted Sally agreed to participate in this interview as I personally think she has done a fantastic amount via her training courses and excellent blog to educate PR professionals on the dos and don’t of pitching to the media.  She has made some excellent points and I think that everyone in our industry should read and take on board what she has said.

Paul Stallard: What is your pet hate of PR?
Sally Whittle: How much of it there is. Seriously. There are just so many agencies, in-house PRs, freelance PRs, social media consultants – they’re all using email, Twitter, phone, mobile, Facebook and goodness knows what – sometimes it’s inescapable. But it’s part of the job, too, so I wouldn’t say I ‘hate’ it – I just switch off the phone from time to time.

PS: What is the best way to contact you?
SW: Email. For me, the danger in ringing a journalist is you never quite know what they’re doing when you call. Imagine you’re a reporter on a story. If you don’t get the story and your competitor does, you’re fired. Or, if you’re freelance, if you don’t get the story, you can’t pay the gas bill this month. You spend two weeks chasing down the right spokesperson, call at the appointed hour and he says he’ll ring you straight back as he’s in a busy lobby. Your phone rings two minutes later. It’s a PR person trying to sell in a press release. By the time you get rid of them, you check your voicemail to find the interviewee left you a message saying he’s just boarding his plane and will try and call you when he’s back in the office in 2 weeks. This story? Is why journalists are sometimes cranky when you call.

PS: Do you think that most PR professionals read the titles you write for before contacting you?
SW: No, I know fine well the majority of them don’t. I’ve trained technology PR agencies where a roomful of 10 execs have struggled to tell me the difference between Computing and Computer Weekly, or what the Guardian’s technology supplement is called. On the one hand I can’t blame them (many of the titles I write for are deeply dull and I don’t read my own work) but on the other hand there’s no excuse. I would never pitch a story to a title I’ve never read, I would be terribly embarrassed if I didn’t know a title’s lead times, sections, readership and angle – so why shouldn’t PR people looking to sell their clients in do the same sort of basic research? The good news – if you like – is that doing this incredibly basic research already puts you ahead of 90% of the PR people who pitch the media.

PS: Have you ever done any PR work and if yes what was the experience like?
SW: Yes, in a totally different sector to the one I cover as a journalist. Frankly, it was horrific. I don’t know how PR people do this nonsense day in, day out. Journalists are incredibly obnoxious, never reply to emails and expect PRs to do their jobs for them with not so much as a thankyou. And clients expect you to get their no news on Richard and Judy without breaking a sweat. And what if your client just isn’t very good? It’s a nightmare. It made me have a lot more sympathy for good PR people, certainly.

PS: What is your top tip for PR professionals?
SW: Remember your client is almost never the story. 90% of the pitches I get are variations of “my client just released a new sort of calcium supplement”. Yawn. That’s a press release, not a story. A story is “40% of teenagers are at risk of osteoporosis.” In the same way “my client’s boring new server is 20% faster than their last boring server” isn’t a story, but “NatWest just cut its power bill by 10%” is a story.

PS: Do you run or can you recommend a PR training course?
SW: Why yes I do, thanks for asking. I’m part of the101 (  We offer a range of training workshops in pitching skills for anyone who wants to improve their media relations and selling in skills. The courses run in London and Manchester, and we also do bespoke courses for individual agencies. The idea of the courses is to give you all the skills and confidence you need to pick up the phone and call any journalist and do a respectable job of selling in a story.

PS: Have you had to change your writing style for online copy to incorporate SEO?
SW: Honestly, no. I know some publications are increasingly starting to reward or incentivise freelancers on the basis of hits, so perhaps it might be more of an issue, but I am skeptical – there’s a joke among hacks that we’re all trying to mention Britney Spears and Apple in our opening pars, regardless of the topic being covered. I’d like to think that relevant copy, well written, will naturally incorporate the keywords people are searching for, and deliver good, relevant traffic. But perhaps I’m a hopeless idealist.

PS: Is there a future long term for hard copy publications or will online rule?
SW: Again, perhaps I’m going to be proved wrong, but I think there’s a market for the very best offline content. I read lots of content online for different reasons – I read online because I’m at a computer already (working), or Perez Hilton because I want access to that fast-moving information immediately and I can’t get that from print. But if I’m going to browse through Heat magazine while my kid’s on the playground, or flick through The Economist while I’m having a latte in the local coffee shop in the mornings, I can’t imagine online replacing that. I see a smaller offline market in the future, but I don’t think print is dead just yet.

PS: Bar your own, which news titles do you read?
SW: Erm, quite a lot of different stuff. I tend to read the morning papers quite religiously and will at least scan through the headlines on BBC Online, the Daily Mail, LA Times, NY Times, I have some Google Alerts for news on specific topics, too. I tend to pick up a print copy of the Guardian on a Saturday, and perhaps a local newspaper once or twice a month.

PS: What is the worst case of PR you have come across? You don’t have to mention the company unless you really want to.
SW: It’s a toss-up. There was the PR who once told a client on a conference call (that had gone badly) that I was an idiot who didn’t understand the market and she’d be in touch with the editor to make sure they got included in the feature I was writing. I was still on the conference call at the time. My second favourite was the PR who took a group of British hacks out to Cebit, first class flights, five star hotel, three nights entertainment. He took us to the press conference – and weirdly it was in German. Turns out he’d taken us to the wrong press conference, and we’d missed the English language session entirely. Oops.

PS: Is being London based an advantage for PR professionals?
SW: Not necessarily. In some respects, regional PR people might find it easier to build a close network with freelancers who aren’t based in London – I think there’s a kind of tendency for hacks in the North (where I’m based) to hang out with PRs because we’re all sort of in the same line of business – it’s not something I saw at all when I lived in London. And if you’re good at providing stories, nobody cares where you live anyway. That said, I still make the journey down to London regularly because I think it’s important to be ‘seen’ every so often, and to make time to meet your key contacts.

Next in the meet the media series are as follows:
Peter Whitehead, FT Digital (interview live on 24 March)
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)