Posted by Phil Hall
Thou Shall Not Buy Media People a Meal
Gather around, brothers and sisters, for the PR Gospel lesson is about to commence. Today we will focus on the casual sin of buying lunches for journalists. Some PR people think this is a key to securing killer coverage. In truth, it is a blatant waste of time and money (and food, for that matter).
I ran my own PR agency for ten years and never bought a single meal for a journalist. I can’t say that this strategy was flawed – in the course of a decade, my clients wound up on page one of the Wall Street Journal, on “The Today Show” and “Good Morning America,” and even as far afield as the BBC, Agence France Presse and (back in the fun days of the USSR) TASS (and the party boys at the Kremlin were not ones for being wined and dined by capitalist flacks!).
Let’s consider some ground rules in dealing with the media. Serious and professional editors, reporters and producers feast on information that is delivered in crisp, succinct and well-cooked servings. Despite the grumblings of the media that they are barely paid enough, they are able to buy their own lunches. It is not the PR person’s job to feed them. This includes all aspects of the food-for-thought exchange, from sending munchies over the holidays (my December mailbox was overstuffed with atrocious chocolates and over-salted nuts, most of which were given away or trashed) to going the full blast with busboys tossing plates of soggy eggs at “press breakfasts.”
But you may ask: what kind of journalist gets snagged with free food? This situation reminds me of a trade media character I once knew. I’ll call him Ol’ Lunchbucket, because he perfected the art of mooching meals in exchange for press coverage. On the surface, you might think that such an exchange contradicts our lesson. In reality, it reconfirmed it: Ol’ Lunchbucket gave priority story placement to his mealtime buddies within the city where he worked. The industry in the rest of the country (which didn’t cover his lunch tab) was barely acknowledged outside of some artful rewording of press releases or rewrites of stories published in other magazines. Not surprising, Ol’ Lunchbucket’s publication had relatively little value for the industry he covered (since his writing placed an absurd concentration on a limited number of companies in a limited geographical sector while literally ignoring the rest of America). The man himself had his shenanigans roasted when an industry tribute of his career seemed to place a surplus of attention on his gluttony rather than his ability to break exclusive news (which, of course, is terrible PR for that guy – but that’s his woe).
As a journalist, I was once wined and dined by a software entrepreneur who was eager for ink. When several weeks passed without any coverage of his software program, he kept needling me with the inquiry: “What happened to the story we discussed OVER LUNCH?” The fact that he never gave me the information I truly needed to make the story happen (exclusive client testimonials, high-res screen shots) somehow didn’t sink in. He truly believed that an exchange was underway: one eggplant parmigiana lunch for 15 column inches of glowing coverage. To deal with those types of people, we’ll need to drop some bromide tablets in our communion cup.
(Phil Hall is the former president of Open City Communications, a New York PR agency, and former editor of PR News. His latest book “The New PR” will be released later this year from Larstan Publishing.)
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Right on the money, Phil. Surely funds spent on 'buying' favors with the press could be better spent on keeping media lists updated so they're always clean and fresh. I think most of us grounded in reality can agree the real way to gain a key reporter's trust is to deliver the information they need and want on time. Nothing says "you're a PR tool" to a serious journalist like cheap booty and irrelevant, unwanted pitches.
We digress; this is copy for the millions of other PR 101 sites out there. Is Amanda still recovering from her car accident? Bring back the cutting commentary...
The column (unlike what Alas thinks) is still good stuff. Maybe Phil could've brought up the current laptop giveaways by Edelman/Microsoft VISTA to some bloggers: what was done right and what should've been done right at the beginning (instead of some backtracking I recall reading about).
While I agree with this general premise, I do believe that a strategic lunch meeting definitely has its advantages.
The thought that buying someone a sandwich and fries will automatically ensure coverage is naive and patronizing at best - however so much of what we do in PR focuses on relationships and nurturing relationships. In the same way that you might take a client out for lunch does not ensure the deal will be closed. What it DOES ensure, however, is valuable face time and getting to know the reporter on a more personal level. In this regard you become more than another name on a press release.
In short, a lunch or any social interaction with a reporter should be seen as a step towards a long term relationship rather than a 'one-night-stand'.
I'm with Irish Red (and not because I'm Irish).
Sure, great stories can stand on their own, but sometimes, it's just nice to get out of the office. I did almost 10 years in NYC and for certain clients, I would budget in a few hours each month to take media to lunches. They're not that different from deskside tours, but instead of just 30 minutes to tell you why the new computer paper from DigiPaperExtreme is so great, we also can get to know each other or catch up if we have a relationship already.
To think that buying lunch or sending people on a fam trip will secure coverage is plain wrong. Could it help? Sure.
Great post and good commentary on how not to buy coverage with lunch. Meeting with journalists in a more casual setting - for a cup of coffee, a quick bite or even a sidebar at an event builds the relationship - regardless of who picks up the tab.
I had to laugh when I read this and remembered the time I tried to buy a starving young reporter the $2.50 peanut butter and jelly sandwich she ordered. She wouldn't take my money, but she wrote an amazing story following almost every press release we sent.
Getting to know journalists on a more personal level is a good thing - especially in the local markets where they move around a lot.
I once worked with a crusty old PR pro who warmed up new journalists and their editors by asking them to audit her relationship with them over a meeting at their offices. Talk about turning the tables - it worked!