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Meet the media: Sean Hargrave

Written by Paul Stallard
Sean Hargrave and son Daniel

Sean Hargrave and son Daniel

For my meet the media interview this week I have put Sean Hargrave the former Sunday Times Innovation editor and prolific freelancer in the hot seat. Sean explains why he has black listed one PR agency, where his favourite pub is, why care is his top tip for PR pros and his take on the online V print debate.  Sean also runs, a social media site where people can practice languages with one another. This is well worth reading.

Name and titles you work for: Sean Hargrave, former Sunday Times Innovation editor, freelancing since the end of the ’90s for The Guardian, New Media Age, and various business supplements for the nationals

Paul Stallard: What is your pet hate of PR?
Sean Hargrave: Not knowing what their clients does is a big one. Many have no idea why their client should contribute to an article, they just say, ‘talk to Jim, he covers this’ without any clue of why Jim is qualified to comment and what interesting insight he would offer. It should be, ‘talk to Jim, he sits on x committee and he’s opposed to y or he’s the leading voice behind x’ etc..

PS: What is the best way to contact you?
SH: Email, always email. I freelance from home so it can be mad if i get a tonne of calls. I live in the sticks so mobile coverage catch be patchy.

PS: Do you think that most PR professionals read the titles you write for before contacting you?
SH: The good ones do but I understand not everybody can read everything. It’s best to have an idea of the title and what it covers and then concentrate on what your clients have to offer. No journalist expects all PRs to have read every article they’ve done or to read every word in every title they contribute to.

PS: Have you ever done any PR work and if yes what was the experience like?
SH: I do quite a bit of media training and write case studies and opinion pieces, but no PR work, as in ‘selling in’ stories, because that should be a complete no-go area for journalists.

I helped a friend get an account and sat in on a meeting to propose him but i didn’t do any pr work. However, it gave me an idea of how unrealistic some clients are and how they can expect the moon and a start-up won’t disagree and then they get fired three months later with the last bill not paid because the CEO wasn’t in the FT every other day.

PS: What is your top tip for PR professionals?
SH: Care. That’s the main thing. Be in to the subjects your clients cover and understand the industry arguments, the movements and what’s going on and what your client’s role is in it all. A lot of PR people haven’t got a clue what their client does or why they’re interesting for journalists to talk to they just badger writers to cover someone because that’s what their job is. There’s rarely an appreciation of what’s going on and how their person is relevant to the writer.

PS: Do you run or can you recommend a PR training course?
SH: I can recommend a good media trainer who’s recently branched out in to teaching blogging skills and better user of social media…!

PS: How many emails / calls do you get a day?
SH: I must get the best part of a hundred press releases (double that if I’ve done something on Response Source) as well as ‘our CEO is flying in from NYC, fancy coffee’ emails every day. I probably only get half a dozen cold calls, I think PRs generally know I’m not fond of being called out of the blue for routine ‘I’m trying to flog this story, please come to a round table’ type pleas.

PS: How has the increase of social media affected traditional journalism?
SH: Twitter’s great for links to interesting case studies and the companies are obviously interesting to cover themselves.
I can get quite a bit of info from blogs but i don’t think these are a rival to traditional journalism, at the moment anyway, because they’re normally best when written by journalists who have a day job elsewhere or a top exec who’s day job isn’t writing. I don’t think anyone, bar a couple of stand-out cases, is making a serious living out of blogging.

PS: Have you had to change your writing style for online copy to incorporate SEO?
SH: No, it’s an interesting one, but no. The people I write for normally have pretty good audiences so they’re more interested in good stories than SEO. I’d imagine it’s a big issue for start-up online news sites, though.

PS: Is there a future long term for hard copy publications or will online rule?
SH: That’s the million dollar question. I think deadwood publishing will always exist as it’s a nicer experience to sit in the garden with a paper rather than a laptop. Sales will decline further, however. I think that papers will need to do a Daily Mail and really build a brand for which customers and values they align with so it becomes a purchase representing who you are and your views, which I guess we’ve already got but this will need to be developed further. It will be a shame, in a way, as people won’t be discovering, they’ll just have their views reinforced with ‘it’s not just you, we think the EU is crazy too’ type Daily Mail stories.

I don’t see why online and print can’t coexist but I expect there will moves online to not give away all copy, such as some columnists, as experiments in micropayments are undertaken. However, i think this will be undermined by these columnists blogging elsewhere for free. So, I think the papers need to move with their audience and manage the decline in print as it’s irreversible now but I don’t see print be completely defeated by online. That’s why i think News Corp buying MySpace was such a good move.

PS: Bar your own, which news titles do you read?
SH: I read the Daily Telegraph, particularly Saturday Telegraph and The Sunday Times, as well as the Guardian, particularly on a Monday and a Thursday for media and technology.

However, I think the interesting thing is I end up having people on Facebook and Twitter sending me off in all directions to multitudes of sites with interesting links. That’s why the papers are really suffering. People don’t go to a brand any more. The trust people they know online to recommend stories or they pick up on RSS feeds and so only consume a story and dip out again. That why, as an aside, I think behavioural targeting will evolved to serve more relevant content and not just adverts.
The traditional media giants have a problem that people aren’t single channel any more. They don’t just buy a paper, because that’s the paper they buy, and then just read it cover to cover. They’re more like butterflies hoping around from one story to another, irrespective of brand because often the brand is lost in a ‘tiny’ url.

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.
SH: Not too many disasters, just lots and lots of minor problems which are avoidable. Plenty of interviews not happening and at least one lunch i ended up picking up even though i’d been invited to lunch to discuss a PR’s clients. You’d be surprised. Not getting back to a journo is a really big one and overpromising what they can deliver is a real bug bear. So I’d say it’s not a case of major events just a lot of regular annoyances which, i have to say, or more than made up for by good, professional PR people.

PS: Are there any PR agencies you have black listed because of bad practices? You don’t have to mention the company unless you really want to.
SH: Yes, black listed one for causing a problem with a magazine about a client’s quotes which were accurate but they’d changed their mind. Very rare i do this though and, to be honest, if they could really come up with the goods on something, i’d probably take a call. But there have been a couple of other big agencies i’ve not cooperated with for a while as they’ve seriously let me down with interviews or, in one case, i was booked in for a day of radio interviews. I only found out they were cancelled on the day because i phoned for an address. I expected a kill fee, eventually they agreed but weren’t happy and then pretended to push a payment through but did nothing until i ignored them.
The advice i would pass on is that clients will come and go and they will always hire you on the contacts you have within the media, so just be careful not to treat a writer really unfairly and if you run an agency and a junior has a problem with a journalist who’s not had a problem in twenty years, then you may want to consider listening to the journalist before criticising them to a commissioning editor.

PS: What is your favourite restaurant/coffee house for briefings?
SH: My local pub, the Fox and Houds in Uffington, Oxfordshire just under the White Horse hill because it doesn’t involve a four hour round trip to London. I also use the Pheasant (owned by Will Young’s parents) which is just off the M4, junction 14. The media is so London-centric it helps sometimes to let people know there is life outside the capital. I was as guilty of this as anyone when i lived and worked in London, so it’s not like I can talk.

PS: Do you believe journalists are rude to PR professionals?
SH: Absolutely, and I have to admit I’ve been a bit curt on occasion but I’ve normally apologised if I think I’ve been a bit off because PR people are the ultimate in-between exec caught in a rock and a hard place. I understand that but I do get annoyed when people aren’t honest. If a subject’s too difficult or political for your guy to comment, just say, don’t keep on promising something will happen and keep me hanging on and then say the spokesperson can’t do anything within the time frame which you’ve ensured has slowly run down through inacation.
Having said that, i know some journos, particularly at The Sunday Times who’ve talked to PR people like dirt and all I can say is, ‘karma’. When they’re freelance and struggling, starve them of info because they’d only use it to stitch up your clients anyway.
If it helps, journalists in a news org know who the nasty ones are and they’re generally not the guys who get invited for a drink and a gossip, so the karma thing kind of works out. Also, tricky journalists, are less likely to get cooperation because the PR people know they’re only phoning to boost their ego, shout at a couple of young girls and try to stitch up a client. Every agency should have a heavy weight boxer they send to briefings with these type of people and see how mouthy they are when it’s not a graduate having her ear bitten off at the other end of a telephone line.

PS: Is being London based an advantage for PR professionals?
SH: I guess so because that’s where the media is and a lot of the clients, although Manchester, Brighton and Bristol are all very exciting places to be for new media, as well as London. I think that PR people could do with occasionally considering going beyond London though for events and for meetings with journalists.

Previous meet the media interviews:
Alan Cane, FT
Bryan Glick, Computing
Adrian Bridgwater
Clive Akass, PCW
Guy Clapperton
Dan Oliver, .Net
John Gripton,
Alex Blyth
Christine Horton, Channel Pro
Alan Burkitt Gray, GTB
Peter Whitehead
Sally Whittle

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