Monday, 22 August 2011

Interview With An Anonymous PR

Journalists and PRs prowl very much the same wilderness, but all too often lock horns in an unfortunate fashion.
   While writing the book How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else, I occasionally found myself railing against a few of PRs' more seemingly obstructive habits.  So much so, that I felt the need to include a note that I honestly don’t dislike PRs at all.  Far from it – they’re mostly helpful individuals who can help you achieve greatness.  It’s just that sometimes we can have very different goals - and I think that a little more understanding between journos and PRs wouldn’t go amiss.
   With that in mind, I contacted a PR person who works in TV, and asked whether they’d be prepared to answer some questions about their job and the dynamics between them and the journos with whom they work.  Here, then, are Anonymous TV PR’s splendidly candid replies…

When and how did you break into PR?
“In 2003, and to say I 'broke into PR' might be giving it a bit too much credit. It was more along the lines of getting a job out of university which then gave me a foot into the door with a very entry level job in PR. Then I managed to work my way up from there. So let’s just say I stumbled into PR, and continued stumbling ever since.”

What is it about PR that you enjoy?
“I love the variety that the job entails. Some days I will be on set for a programme I’m working on, another day running a press launch or event and some days I’ll be in the office having a lot of meetings. Add in lots of writing (LOTS) as well as coming up with creative concepts for photography and press strategies and it’s quite a varied job. More than anything it’s that which I find appealing. I don’t think I could do a job which involved the same task every single day.”

What are the best and worst things about your job?
“The best things are the creative aspects – coming up with an amazing idea for a feature, or photography concept, or brilliant launch idea is really something that I get enthusiastic about. Worst parts of my job? Dealing with difficult talent, difficult journalists and pitching out utterly hopeless features ideas in order to keep a commissioner/Exec happy are the things which are most regular annoyances…”

Most journalists seem to have a love/hate relationship with PRs. Do you feel a similar way about them?
“Hmmmm, this one is tricky. Most journalists I get on with well. I appreciate that they have a job to do, which is sometimes at odds with mine, but that’s not to say we can’t have a good working relationship. However there are a few journalists (just as there are a few PRs) who just aren’t very good at their job. I’m sure they are lovely people (or not, in some cases), but the fact is that if you aren’t very good at your job then you really shouldn’t be doing it. My favourite journalists are the ones that I have built up a relationship of trust with. The ones that I can tell anything to off the record, and know that the information remains between us. Sometimes that’s a really valuable thing to know.”

A lot of journos hate it when a PR insists on sitting in on interviews. Why do PRs sometimes have to do this? Who requests it, generally?
“Journalists might hate it, but I guarantee that the PR hates it more. We know that it can cause the conversation to be less natural than it should be, but sometimes it’s necessary. Often it will be either a company policy (in the case of one large UK broadcaster), requested by the actor’s agent or publicist (who doesn’t realise that thorough briefing and media training beforehand is much more useful) or by the actor themselves (who is nervous and wants a crutch).
   “The only time I’ve ever chosen to sit in on an interview myself is when either the actor is particularly young or inexperienced, or when the interview is with a journalist who has been a 'c.u.*.t' before and stitched me up with an interview.
   “Oh, and you know what PR’s hate more than sitting in on interviews? Journalists commenting on the fact that a PR was sitting in on an interview in the copy. Let’s be clear, the public do not care about this, and it doesn’t make interesting copy. It’s petty point scoring that just sours your relationship for no real reason.”

What would be your own equivalent pet hate - something that journalists occasionally insist on doing?
“Mentioning PRs in the copy of a feature is always slightly annoying. Beyond that – constant chasing about a request is my biggie. I know some PRs might not get back to you, either at all, or when they say they will. I do though.
   “So when I get a request from you, I’ll ask for all the information I need and give you a rough steer on when I’m likely to hear back. Don’t chase me before this time. It just frustrates me to reply to that email/phone call when I could actually be doing my job.”

What can be some of the hardest things for a PR, in dealing with the press?
“Sometimes publications don’t necessarily understand that if I decline something it’s not through my own choice. It could be that I would absolutely love a feature in your publiciation. But the talent might have turned it down. Or it could be that I have to prioritise my top requests – in making sure that a campaign is relevant and targeted I might not be able to help you with a particular request, but that’s just the nature of the game. We all win some and lose some.”

Is the increasing connectivity of the internet a boon or a hindrance to PR companies?
“Both. We can target consumers directly with greater accuracy ever before – and in a very personal way. However these sorts of social media/blogger outreach have difficulty cutting through in the same way that, for instance, a magazine cover would because of the volume of content on the internet. Generally our greatest struggle is persuading the clients/execs we report into that it is a valuable use of our time. It’s annoying, but those sort of people still value a framed cover on their wall above driving and creating massive online buzz about a show.
   “The internet also raises some issues with talent. They are notoriously loose lipped about things which we might not necessarily want in the public domain. Naughty talent.”

How can journalist/PR relations be improved?
“Talking, listening, not losing our tempers and having a little bit of trust with each other. You have space to fill, and we want to fill it. It shouldn’t really be that difficult.”

My ebook How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else, is out now on Amazon UK, Amazon US and Amazon Germany, among others.  You can also buy a triple pack of PDF, ePub and Kindle files direct from me, via PayPal (most credit/debit cards).  Full details here, you splendid individual.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Interviewing Book Available Now

Hello folks,

Just a quick post to let you know that the book mentioned earlier on this very blog is now available.

Cramming 23 years of journalistic experience into 28,000 words, How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else is initially available at a limited-time low price of £3.90!

Full details here.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Forthcoming E-Book Revealed

In coming weeks, I'll release my first ever e-book.  It will cover a subject which seems to have been weirdly overlooked in the e-book world: interviewing people journalistically.

The title, as you can see from its cover on the the left, will be How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else.

This book is based on 23 years of journalistic experience.  Within its electronic pages, I'll be giving nuts-and-bolts, detailed advice on the craft of interviewing - from preparation, to conducting the chat, to writing the finished article - while delivering it all in a hopefully entertaining and conversational fashion.  I'll also lift the lid on the reality of interviewing people and the nasty surprises and awkward situations you're likely to face along the way, right down to what to do when your recording device has failed to tape the conversation.

Sections of the book will include:

  • Five Qualities That Make For A Good Interviewer
  • Seven Ways To Set Your Interviewee At Ease
  • The Eight Types Of Interviewee
  • Fandom Vs Professionalism
  • Can An Interviewee Ever Become Your Friend?
  • Underhand Tactics & Grey Areas
  • Becoming A Fly On The Wall
  • The Dreaded Roundtable Interview
  • Alcohol
  • Transcription: A Necessary Evil
  • How Verbatim Do You Need To Be With Those Quotes?
  • The Structure Of An Interview Article
As we speak, I'm putting the finishing touches to the book.  If you're an aspiring journalist, or are just interested in the topic of how a journo goes about interviewing people, then I want it to answer every question you could possibly have.

To that end, I'd like you to suggest things you'd like the book to cover.  The above list only represents a segment of the 26,000-word book, but if you have anything in mind which you'd really like answered, then please let me know in the Comments below or by e-mailing me at journozone AT gmail DOT com.  Hopefully, such comments will help me deliver a book about interviewing people which leaves no stone unturned.

This very afternoon, I'm launching a Facebook page for the book.  Please feel free to register your interest and support by hitting Like!

UPDATE August 13: the book will be available to buy on various Amazon sites from Monday, August 15.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Interview: SFX's Reviews Editor Quizzed

One of my goals for the How To Be A Journalist site is to demystify stuff.  The kind of things which you might not get told elsewhere - or which even get mentioned elsewhere.  So much of the business of being a journalist - the real nitty-gritty - is all about things which you can only figure out for yourself.  Or you can read about it here, from time to time, if you add this blogroll to your RSS feed or follow us on Twitter.

You may have wondered how to go about approaching magazines - or even what some of these 'section editors' actually do.  I touched on the former subject in my earlier post How To Write For Magazines, but it'd also be nice to hear it from a horse's mouth, no?  For instance, an actual section editor on an actual magazine?  

Top UK mag SFX's Reviews Editor, Ian Berriman, kindly agreed to an interview about what his role entails, how he prefers people to approach him, what he expects from his writers and things which turn him off.  Make no mistake: Ian really is a very nice man, but in this interview he gives it to you straight.  I'm sure you wouldn't want it any other way.  After all, you need to know this stuff.  Even if you don't fancy writing for SFX, or even that kind of magazine, the majority of principles and pet hates discussed here will be relevant right across the publishing spectrum.

Ian started his career as a daytime TV researcher before freelancing for SFX for a few years.  He then joined the staff in March 2002.  Here goes...

Hello Sir!  Tell us about your role on SFX magazine - what exactly does it involve?
Ian Berriman: "Hello Sir! I’m responsible for all the reviews - films, DVDs, books, comics, audio CDs, toys and so on - that appear in the magazine. This involves researching what products are being released, chasing up review materials - check discs, advances, publicity images - from PR people, assigning reviews to freelancers and fellow SFX team members, and flatplanning the section.  In case you didn't know, the 'reviews flatplan' breaks down the contents of each page for the designers. Once the reviews come in I check them and ask for clarifications and/or make minor rewrites where necessary. Finally, once they’ve been subedited to fit the available space, I proofread each page."

How often do you take on new writers and do you ever actively search for them?
"In the last year I’ve probably added a couple of new names to my freelance pool. The very notion of 'actively searching' seems downright bizarre when we receive so many requests for work: the nearest I’ve come to that is discovering that a writer whose work I’ve always admired was following SFX on Twitter and asking him if he’d like to work for us. What’s more likely to happen is that someone I trust – another journalist, usually – will recommend someone to me.
    "Actively searching out new writers would take time, and time is a very rare commodity in our business. Even finding the time to deal with the on-spec submissions that come in can be tricky. I make it a matter of policy to reply to everyone (even if only with a standard form of words), and I try my level best to read all the samples that are submitted, but sometimes those emails get 'put aside to look at when it’s less frantic' and end up sitting there for a month or more. To be blunt: when it’s a choice between going home to snatch some time with my fiancé, or sitting in the office for another half hour to read through a pile of spec submissions, fiancé usually wins."

How many submissions do you receive from potential new writers, each month?
"It ebbs and flows, but I’d guess that it averages out at four or five a week. My calculator tells me that’s between 16 and 20 a month."

What are the most common mistakes that potential new writers make when contacting you? 
"I’m afraid the main one is terribly obvious, but it bears repeating: if you can’t master the basics of English grammar, or spell, I will not employ you. Chances are no-one else will either, because professional journalists are invariably grammar Nazis. That may seem harsh, but it’s a fact. If you clearly haven’t even taken the time to run a basic spell-check on your email - which takes a few seconds - I won’t even send you a standard form reply back. Frankly, I consider it discourteous.  
    "Accidentally starting your email with the words 'Dear Total Film…' isn’t necessarily a capital offence - although I will take perverse pleasure in pointing it out to you - so long as what follows convinces me that you have read our magazine and understand its ethos.  It’s always blindingly obvious when you’ve sent the same generic wording to 20 different magazines. Keep it brief - I probably won’t read beyond the second paragraph - and don’t send me your CV unless there’s something mindblowingly impressive on there. Send samples - maybe three of your best pieces - as Word documents or PDFs that are simple to print out. Don't send a link to a website and make me plough through it looking for relevant examples of your work. 
    "Finally, make sure these samples are relevant. A bunch of gig reviews doesn't tell me anything about your knowledge of/ability to write about SF & fantasy films/books/comics - and, worse, implies that you're not really that interested in them."

What's the one thing that potential new writers do, perhaps unintentionally, that really put you off them?
"I’m amenable to an informal, chatty tone, but don’t go overboard and try and be too pally. When someone’s initial email is along the lines of, 'Hi Ian! I see that you like crisps and support Hull City! Well I love crisps too, and I spent an afternoon in Hull once in November 2006!', it ever-so-slightly creeps me out. I’m looking for writers, not private investigators, so approach an initial email as you would a first face-to-face conversation. And whatever you do, don’t try any kind of 'poor-me' routine: 'I’ve always dreamed of doing this, no-one will give me a chance, boo hoo hoo…'. Future Publishing replaced my heart with a lump of gleaming black obsidian many years ago, so emotional blackmail doesn’t cut any ice with me."  

When you do hire writers, is it then a case of entrusting them with progressively bigger tasks, depending on how well they do?
"Very much so. Initially, I am liable to toss some direct-to-video crud your way and see how you get on. If you continue to impress me over the course of several months - and without complaining - I will start to give you more work, longer reviews, and more stimulating assignments. Nobody starts off reviewing Hollywood blockbusters: it may take years to work up to that level, if you ever reach it. There are two key things to remember if you are a budding freelancer. Firstly, freelancers tend to be there for the dirty jobs: staff always get first dibs and SFX has a very large team. Secondly, even if you are a very talented writer, I have 15 or 20 other talented writers on my books who’ve been working for me for years, and have families to feed. Taking on a new writer means taking one of them out into the backyard and nail-gunning them in the head, so it’s not something I do lightly."

Once writers are reviewing for you, what are the biggest pitfalls in writing reviews for SFX?
"Not hitting the deadline: I have to hand over completed pages to our designers every day to avoid a backlog building up, so people who consistently deliver copy late will not be doing so for very long. Also, not getting the format right and including all the information specified in the commission.  It might seem like a piddling triviality, but if your review is missing the BBFC certificate or page count, that creates more work for me, and after you’ve looked up the twentieth missing detail of the month it really starts to grate. Finally, any section editor will have their own personal bugbears - phrases or formulations that are the linguistic equivalent of nails down a blackboard. Work out what they are, either by asking me direct, or working out why I keep rewriting your reviews, and then never use them again. For example, I can’t abide passive sentence constructions, and generally loathe reviews written in the first person."

How do you go about stamping those pitfalls out, if you'll forgive the nonsensical metaphor?
"Every time I commission a review, the freelancer receives a formal commission document, in the form of a PDF. This explains precisely how the submitted review should be formatted and also includes some do’s and don’ts: for example, reviewers of fantasy novels are banned from cracking gags about the size and weight of the book – experience tells me that without that rule they’d crop up in about 30 reviews every year. This document also includes a list of forbidden clichés. People who ignore this and submit copy that includes phrases like “it does what it says on the tin” are liable to feel my wrath."

What do you do if a reviewer's opinion of something really flies in the face of the general 'party line' at the mag?
"I was about to say “absolutely nothing”, but then I remembered that once, years ago, I changed a DVD review from one star to two stars, because I personally considered the film worthy of four stars. The writer concerned was some chap called Jason Arnopp – I wonder whatever happened to him? I believe that was the first and last occasion I ever did that. Occasionally I will sense a mismatch between the overall tone of the review and the star rating and email the writer to query it, but SFX has never had an official party line, so if you write a two-star review of a film that I thought was great, I’ll respect your judgement and print it unchanged. Very often those reviews are the ones that stimulate the most interest and debate amongst our readers."

Hope this was useful, folks.  Incidentally, the film which Ian is talking about in that last paragraph is George Romero's Martin (1977).  I love most of Romero's work, but that film bores me senseless.  Many people like it a lot, though, so it was perfectly reasonable of Lord Berriman to change the rating.

                                                                  * * *

My horror novella Beast In The Basement is a dark, twisted tale of obsession, revenge, censorship, blame culture and parental responsibility.  In a big house in the countryside, an increasingly unstable author toils over a new hotly-anticipated novel which will close the best-selling trilogy of Jade Nexus books.  A violent incident tips him into a downward spiral with horrific consequences.  Read it before someone spoilers you!  Beast is available for Kindle (which can be read on most devices) at Amazon UK, Amazon US and more.  More details here.

My Amazon-acclaimed non-fiction ebook How To Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne And Everyone Else is out now on Amazon UK, Amazon US and Amazon Germany, among others.  You can also buy it direct from me, in a Triple Pack of all three major file-types (PDF, ePub, Kindle), via PayPal.  Full details here, you splendid individual.

How to Interview Doctor Who, Ozzy Osbourne and Everyone Else