SNAFU of the Week – PR briefing given to journalist

Wired coverOur craving for titillation is satisfied today by the coverage of a memo from Waggener Edstrom intended to prepare a Microsoft exec for an interview with a Wired Magazine writer but which found its way into the hands of the reporter.

As I read the comments on sites covering this story, I see many expressions of disapprobation at the fact that a public relations firm would invest a significant amount of energy in researching a reporter, his predispositions, interests and past writings. I can’t agree with this sentiment.

An interview with a reporter and a news outlet is a conversation. Bad media relations comes from people who simply spout their message repeatedly and endlessly without regard for the interests or perspective of the journalist they are talking to.

We should communicate to be understood, not simply to be heard. And we can be better understood if we communicate in terms that make sense and are of interest to the reporter writing the story.

Every news outlet has different readers and a unique perspective. A well prepared interviewee should be familiar with a reporter’s previous writings, the topics she has covered, the issues that interest her and the perspective she has on them.

That’s the PR person’s job. We research news outlets and reporters as thoroughly as they research their interviewees.

And let’s remember that regardless of how much preparation Microsoft/Waggener Edstrom did, the Wired reporter still had his fingers on the keyboard. No respectable journalist ever writes a story off only one source. Wired’s readers would expect it to develop perspective on the story through independent research and by interviewing a number of different sources.

I can understand the fascination with this issue. It concerns big names – Wired, Microsoft, Waggener Edstrom. And there’s an element of schadenfreude in many of the comments.

What’s really interesting here is that we get to see behind the curtain. And we’re fascinated by how things really work. So, it’s only natural that it should draw an audience. And many people will not like what they see going on. (Have you ever gone into the garage while the mechanics have the parts of your car engine spread around like so much flotsam?)

But at the end, what the Microsoft memo shows is people doing their jobs. And with one big exception, they are doing them well. That exception, of course, is that the memo ended up in the wrong hands. A pretty big mistake. But not the end of the world. And not a great scandal either.

*Thank you to Thomas Hawk for having pointed this story out earlier today.

UPDATE: Posts on this topic that are worth reading: Giovanni Rodriguez, Jon Udell, Mathew Ingram, Eric Eggertson, and Steve Cody.

  • Gillian Brouse

    Jon Udell, a former journalist (Byte) and now employee of Wired has a very good post on this subject. http://blog.jonudell.net/2007/03/28/ink-by-the-barrel/

  • I couldn’t agree more. I was going to write much the same thing on my blog. But I think I’ll let your post do the talking for me.

  • Gillian,
    Thanks for the pointer to John Udell. I’ve added a link as an Update to my post.

    Chip,
    Thanks for the kind words. And I followed you in the comments on Katie Paine’s post. We seem to be in the same neighbourhood today.

  • I think the best comment on this was Andy Lark, saying that most briefing documents aren’t nearly this detailed because it’s hard to get an executive to read more than 500 words!

    Journalists might be initially shocked at the depth of preparation and research about their work, but these are the same journalists who would call PR people unprofessional if we don’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of everything they’re written or said in the past 10 years.

  • Looks to me like the PR ‘flacks’ from Waggener Edstrom did a thorough job. And oooh yes I know the pain of hitting send and having my email fly into the hands of the person who is the subject of my prose (not to say my biting wit). Egg on face isn’t very pleasant.