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Can You Take a Vacation from Public Relations?

Half-day Fridays, long weekends, longer lunches, ducking out for “getaway” day baseball games, early afternoon drinks, meetings that last 18 holes. Summer is great fun, but some people in the public relations industry seem to be on a permanent vacation. Are you one of these PR slackers?

Witness the public relations rep who called, breathless, to “tip” me off to a big story. No one had picked up this story yet, I was told. Considering I just had to plunk down $1,500 on a new computer, I was excited to recoup some of the money with an exclusive. Of course, a 10-second search on Google News revealed that the story had indeed been reported, three days earlier, in a little newspaper named the Washington Post.

Now, the PR flack in question didn’t lie to me, at least knowingly. But the Washington Post is a top five circulation newspaper and the public relations rep wasn’t aware they had given his company ink. His company needs to get a news monitoring service, or at least learn to use any one of a dozen decent search engines.

This young man was not alone in bringing me PR misery this week. A fine young woman at a public relations firm set-up a conference call for me with the Chief Executive Officer of a company she’s representing. At the prescribed time, I dutifully turned off my radio and dialed the CEO’s office, as I’d been instructed. After introducing myself and reminding the CEO’s personal assistant of the scheduled interview scheduled to take place, I was met with dead air.

“He’s out of the country,” the personal assistant said.

“Oh, um, I’m sorry,” I replied. “I hope there wasn’t an emergency or something.”

“No. He’s on vacation this week.”

After thanking the assistant, I quickly dialed the PR rep who set-up the interview. I got her voicemail and left a message asking for her to please call me as soon as possible because I couldn’t get in touch with the CEO. Perhaps she had merely screwed up a date or simply forgotten to leave me a message about the CEO being out of town.

But after three voicemail messages and three emails, I’ve received no reply. I’ve also spoken to the CEO’s personal assistant, who informed me that she schedules media requests and hasn’t spoken to the the M.I.A. public relations rep in “a few weeks, at least.” I’ve decided to write off the incident, and the unprofessional public relations firm. At least the CEO’s personal assistant treated me with basic professional courtesy.

As with any large industry, unprofessionalism in public relations is sadly common. Being constantly harassed and eventually berated, well, that’s a new twist for me.

Recently, I actually had two separate PR flacks harassing me. The first I told nicely to stop calling and emailing. He begged off. Eventually, I wrote about his client because I liked the story; the timing just wasn’t right when I was initially pitched. As for the second incident, well, let’s just say I didn’t know that the local hospital for the criminally insane was doubling as a public relations firm.

It started with a phone pitch. I politely informed the woman that I don’t cover the sector in question. She informed me that the newspaper had told her to call me. I reiterated that I don’t cover the sector in question, regardless of what my friends at the newspaper say. She persisted, telling me to “just listen” and it “will only take a minute or two.” For good measure, I told her I was on a deadline and had to get off the phone. And then the fun started.

This woman simply would not shut up. She kept pitching right up until hung up on her. She called me back almost immediately, but thanks to my caller ID, I ignored her. Three minutes later, she called me again. Two minutes after that she called me again. And then it was down to a minute. I didn’t know whether to be amused, terrified, or angry. Since my deadline–i.e., the sausage I was cooking for lunch–was almost upon me, I decided on amusement. That didn’t last long.

The constant ringing continued through lunch. She called my landline and cellphone alike. I had to turn both off. Strangely, this persistent public relations rep wasn’t leaving any messages. She called 28 times and never left a message. But as suddenly as the calls began, they stopped. I shrugged it off, thinking she finally got the hint. And then, at approximately 9 a.m. the following day, my phone rang. She had blocked her phone number from showing up on my called ID.

“Hello?” I said.

The next two minutes were a blur as this woman screamed at me.

“How dare you hang up on me!”
“How dare you lie to me!”
“Who the h-e-double-hockeysticks do you think you are!?”
“I’m going to call your editor and get you fired!”
“Do you know [name removed]? Well, he’s a friend of mine and he’s going to hear about this.”

How do you respond to this kind of attack? I had just woken up, hadn’t even had my breakfast cigarette, and was pretty much out of it. I just hung up. An hour later her boss called. To say that this gentlemen groveled would be polite. Eventually the antagonistic public relations rep got on the phone and apologized for her behavior. I told her boss that I didn’t want an explanation, I just wanted her to lose my number.

But last week I was also given a nice little exclusive: an interesting and newsworthy magazine article a week before it hit newsstands. I made a deal with the public relations rep handling the story: let me report the story and the magazine could post their article on the same day mine was published. Of course, it almost didn’t work out.

Newspapers are basically shaped by advertising space and sometimes that means articles get bumped. My column was to be the sacrificial lamb when someone broke a hot story and we didn’t have enough pages to hold all the content slated to run. I found this out on Sunday afternoon, about twelve hours before the magazine was set to post its article online. I quickly called the PR rep, who was out on an excursion far from her office. We discussed the situation and she said she’d call the publisher at home and get the magazine not to post the article. I told if she couldn’t stop it from happening, not to worry.

Being the public relations pro that she is, this woman rose to occasion and stopped the internet presses. The article wasn’t posted on the magazine’s website until the following Tuesday, which is when my article ran, and which included the wrong publication date for the magazine, thanks to my copyediting friends. So after wasting her Sunday dealing with me and my lack of space, my PR friend was greeted with a nice big error in the story she had worked so hard to make happen.

“Don’t worry,” she told me. “You’re the one who looks stupid.”

Indeed.

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.

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