When I returned to my desk, after a couple of days in the west country attending the funeral of an old school friend, I booted up my laptop to find 252 emails awaiting me. The subjects therein ranged from outward bound footwear and luxury self-catering cottages in Sweden, to cutting edge mattresses made in the west country, and a children’s clothing range that, the press release assured me, is worn by both Gwyneth Paltrow and Madonna’s offspring.
Turning to the answering machine, aka voice mail, there were two calls from an ambulance chasing firm of solicitors who had called to say I was owed compensation for an accident I cannot remember having. Three others from people who left no messages, and one from myself trying to find Kim. As for mail there was an issue of the New Yorker, two payments slips, and some vouchers for a supermarket.I mention this because it is illustrative of the way modern PR and marketing is conducted; at a distance, behind a veil of digital technology, that flatters to deceive. Most of my articles, either consumer based or travel, appear in a number of national publications, The Sunday Times, The Financial Times, both The Daily and Sunday Express, and many others over the years, and yet I cannot remember the last time a PR called me to suggest a story. I think it was in the spring of 2011, but I cannot be certain.
Such a statement could invite a tidal wave of cold calls, yet I suspect not. The current paradigm for product placing is a jaunty emailed press release, nine times out of ten beginning “Hi Jonathan, I hope you’re well?”, often followed by some light hearted reference to the weather, or a contemporaneous sporting event. Most will be discarded without ever opening. Others require time, on average a minute, which means, about an hour a day reading unsolicited emails. Multiply that by five for my editors coping with a tsunami of correspondence.
There is a casualness about such emails. Spelling mistakes, factual mistakes and naff jokes aside, how important is the thing being promoted if the limit to the PR’s marketing skill is a computer database and a send button? That’s another ‘hope you’re well’ , a likable aside to the ‘footie’, and back to Facebook.
Responding to emails is rarely easy. If I telephone I am generally rerouted to a voicemail where I am told that the person is away from the office – until last week! Sometimes I get a receptionist asking more questions than the inland revenue who will go on to explain that the PR is in a meeting. So many meetings, probably about databases. The daughter of a friend told me how in their Soho marketing office they would hold all calls once a week for what the head of the company described as a ‘concept fuck fest’.
This reliance upon digital communication overlooks the ease with which even the most complicated arrangements may be dealt with over the phone. It is not uncommon for there to be eight to ten emails for me and whoever it is to finalise details, or get the correct resolution for a photograph, when everything could be ticked off with a single call, a notebook and pen.
Prior to the advent of smart phones, the must have tool for all modern PRs, I would often do my correspondence in the evenings and weekends, replies coming back during he next working day. Not any more. The new PR, armed with iPhones and Blackberries, and anxious to please and impress friends and colleagues, is often quicker to reply at night than during the day, often at times when every PR worth his or her salt is holed up in a wine bar with a large glass of Sancerre.
Years past PRs would call me with suggestions for articles. The conversations relaxed, across a range of products and issues. Among the best practitioners of this patient one-to-one marketing were the legendary Rob Partridge at Island Records, Joanna Burns at Epic (lately with her own company), and Stephanie Briggs at Spring in the west country. Partridge, who passed away some years ago, was masterful. I was a music journalist and after half an hour on the phone with Rob, I would have a wealth of material, with notes of up and coming events and releases. He knew who I wrote for and tailored items to suit, while subtly planning ahead, tipping me off to future developments.
Partidge’s easy going knowledge of the music business and Joanna Burns’ methodical system of breaking journalists down into lists and subjects and thereafter working the phones, patiently and politely, is how I learnt my craft as a PR in the 1980s; working with Wham! and then subsequently for much longer with Sade.
That generation of PR spoke. It could be hard work, and monotonous at times, but it was good to talk – and had its rewards.