Stilgherrian’s advice to a PR student, uhoh

So there was a student who tweeted at me the other night to ask if they could ask me some questions for their marketing and public relations course at some university somewhere and I said yeah sure because I’m like polite and stuff and they emailed me questions and I sent off some answers today and because it took me ages and it was all about the nature of journalism and shit I thought I should share them with you to see what you think.

Here’s what I said, unedited. Well, except for fixing a few obvious mistakes.


I’m always happy to help on student projects. Let’s see where we go with these questions at the end of a long week.

The first thing I’ll say is that I’ll be putting my answers on my own website too — perhaps an edited version — though I won’t mention your name or even your gender or the university you attend.

It’s taken a good three hours to think about this stuff. Your questions were very open-ended and do not have simple one-par answers. I suspect that’s what you’re meant to be doing in this exercise — digging deeper into the issues rather than just assembling the responses from the panel.

There didn’t seem to be any sign in your questions that you’d read any of what I’ve already written on these subjects, particularly on the nature of journalism?

Anyway, to get more value for the world out of my time I’ll post this online and see what responses it gets. That in turn may be useful for you.

The second thing I’ll say is that everything is a dialog, and list-of-questions leading to list-of-answers will lead to a stilted view. I don’t know what the important aspects of your questions might be. You’ll need to think about your own interpretation of this conversation and draw your own conclusions.

If you did this again, I’d strongly suggest doing what other students have done: book an hour of my time for a chat, either over coffee or a beer or via Skype, and have a conversation to explore the issues.

The third thing I’ll say is that my responses probably reflect my specific preoccupations this week and may well change over time.

Oh, and how did you select me for this panel? I’m curious, ‘cos I also saw (obviously) who else you tweeted.

1. Could you please explain what you currently do and how you got there?

I’m a word-whore. I write for mastheads that might be interested in my take on subject areas that they think I’m qualified to write about, and where they know I can deliver the product on time.

Some people call that “freelance journalism”. I really don’t care what it’s called. The fact of the matter is that editors have a product to deliver and they engage people who can deliver that product. That product might be a 500-word straight news story, or it might be a 900-word op-ed (which means “entertain the punters and stir them into posting comments”), or it might be a 2000-word feature on a specific topic. Or it might be a video or audio piece.

I do this shit for (currently) ZDNet Australia, CSO Online, Sydney Morning Herald, Crikey, Technology Spectator, ABC The Drum and whoever else wants to call and offer money. I do a weekly podcast for ZDNet and an occasional one for myself.

As a supposedly-specialist I end up being a go-to person for comment in other media too.

I also have some legacy technical clients for whom I manage websites or solve network problems. That’s a far better hourly rate but not as much fun.

How did I get here? I’ve been fascinated by language and writing since I was a six-year-old, when I asked for a typewriter as a birthday present. When I got to university I studied computing science and linguistics, but also edited newsletters. When I was maybe 21 I dumped a perfectly good job and volunteered for a community radio station and learnt the craft of broadcasting — and a couple of years later I got a job as a producer for ABC Radio.

The rest is history. See my LinkedIn profile.

2. What is journalism to you? …

Above all it’s storytelling. Telling stories that help people explain to each other the world around them.

There’s a lot of pious bullshit talked about journalism, about uncovering the Truth. But at its heart it’s storytelling and entertainment — a core human need.

In all this “journalism is dying” rubbish there’s a core issue that’s forgotten: the vast majority of journalists are factory workers, producing media objects for industrial-age media factories, and they’re just shit-scared about their job security.

3. In a survey in 1991 Public Relations Practitioners believed that 40% of output was based on Public Relations. Editors in contracts estimated it to be an average of 20%. Around what percentage of the news that you produce would you say is sourced from PR? When it comes to working with PR on some articles, how vital is the information that they give you?

20%? 40%? Hahahahahahahahaha! Check out the Crikey/UTS analysis done the other year. It’s WAY over 50% and tech journalism was the worst with 78% of news stories being the direct result of PR placement.

I’ve just counted my own output for the last few months and maybe it’s only 1/3 with some PR input, and perhaps a third of those are little more than straight rewrites of PR material. But then the bulk of my work is analysis and commentary, not daily news cycle reportage.

What’s your count of my work? It’s all listed on my website

How do you measure this? A government minister announces a new policy and their PR people send the documents. You report what the minister says, read the reports, write some analysis. Was that story PR-driven?

How vital the PR input is to the story depends wildly upon the story itself and what the PR input actually is. Something that might have been seen as important — a company’s view on some aspect of the industry — might be sought and yet comes back as a bland, cliche-filled piece of overly-legalled corporate speak. So it gets dropped.

4. How do you decide if something is news worthy? …

How close are we to deadline?

That’s actually serious. If we’re running out of time then things that might not have seemed newsworthy three hours ago can suddenly look appealing.

If I have to write down words then I’ll end up listing all the standard stuff you see in journalism textbooks. Is it new? Interesting? Surprising? Affects lots of people? Represents danger or excitement or a change of worldview? is there human drama such as a power struggle? Is something being exposed that was otherwise hidden?

But really, this stuff is really decided by a gut emotional reaction. You either know what’s news or you don’t.

Or: Is it the sort of thing that’s going to get people talking to each other about it?

… Is there anything PR practitioners can do to persuade you to place their news over another more notable article?

Of course not. Notability or newsworthiness is the determining factor in editorial. Why on earth would any ethical journalist run a less-newsworthy story as lead?

I believe what you’re referring to is called “advertising placement”.

5. Between Journalists and PR practitioners, who do you believe holds more control and why?

Control of what? Of what the audience sees? The journalist. Always. They choose what they write and the manner in which it’s written — well, in conjunction with their editor. Whether they choose to be responsible and ethical and take control is another question.

As soon as you hear a PR person thank a journalist for their “support”, you know that that journalist has failed. They’ve put the needs of someone else ahead of the needs of their audience.

If PR people want more control, then again I believe that’s called “advertising”.

6. What are some strategies that are or could be implemented so that gatekeepers and PR firms can build a strong relationship which allows a win-win situation?

Well, I don’t think of this in terms of wins and losses. But to answer more broadly I think this is less about cultivating relationships with journalists — I mean, by all means buy me lunch or a drink, but that’s just basic courtesy and what you’re buying is the lunch or the drink, not the story — and more about cultivating an acceptable, rational, honest public face for the organisation you represent.

You’ll hear journalists talk about “PR droids” and “minions”. They’re the ones who only ever contact you when they have something to sell, never go beyond the specific line they’re currently pushing, and never seem to think about what kind or work you actually do. They’re the ones who, when asked if there’s a comment on some topic, copy and paste some crap we’ve all seen before, Yawn.

Good PR people develop a a human face for the organisation. Real people saying things they’d say to other real people.

7. Could you please describe a relationship that you have with a Public Relations Practitioner, how that relationship started and what it’s like now?

I try not to be too close to PR people. Better objectivity comes from maintaining a bit of professional distance.

That’s not the answer you wanted, I know, but I’m on deadline now — a story that was commissioned two hours ago. And to be honest the question feels like you’re asking “How do you get along with the people you encounter?” Every one is different.

I’m about to flip over to the 1000 #iiTrial decision in the High Court and I have to file by midday. If you do have suitable timelines maybe we can come back to that.

Hope this helps. Do feel free to come back to me.



So, um, what do you think? Have I given this poor student a hard time? Is there anything I should’ve added?

Oh. And I asked them to set me a deadline and they said midday Friday so I sent it by like before 10am but they still haven’t acknowledged receiving it so I reckon they just made some shit up for the deadline.

17 Replies to “Stilgherrian’s advice to a PR student, uhoh”

  1. I think it was extremely generous, actually.

    Doing other people’s homework for them is normally paid for, unless it’s achieving some kind of real social good eg community broadcasting. I was one of the only people I knew who had an email address when I studied journalism, so I never got into the habit of spamming interviews at people.

    Of course, I do it all the time now. As long as it’s paid for. 🙂

  2. Giving the student a hard time? Hell no. As Jenny said above, your answers were very generous. You’ve given that kid a wealth of stuff to go and explore further.

    Further to that, it seemed like he didn’t do some basic background reading on you and your work – I would have thought at least being aware of *something* that you’d written would be a no-brainer.

    As for the guts of it, solid and sensible commentary on the field.

    There’s probably more to talk about in terms of the “factory workers, producing media objects for industrial-age media factories” stuff, but isn’t really suited to what this student was after.

    I’d be stoked if I got responses like those from someone I’d approached for an assignment.

  3. @Jenny MacKinnon: Ah well, I reckon helping students is part of what old farts like me are meant to do. I suspect there’s meant to be some kind of money or karma in return for it, but nevertheless this ratty old has-been feels that it’s the responsible thing to do — helping the next generation and shit.

    If not as a role model, at least as a dire warning.

    @BernieTB: Yeah upon reflection the questions I was asked were rather generic — and it’s not like I haven’t written and spoken shitloads about this stuff before.

    Indeed if you follow the links you’ll find plenty about the industrial-age media factories. I know some of them have already been used in university classes because I’ve received copyright royalty payments for them — though why you’d reprint them when you can just email the students a link to them for free is beyond me. Perhaps some universities do that to justify their fees.

    Another thing struck me about this student. They don’t seem to have much of an online footprint — unless it’s all in that mongfest called Facebook. No indication on Twitter that they contributed anything to the world. No website. Nothing written anywhere.

    Even their email was from a generic free email account, didn’t mention their phone number or their university or even the Twitter account through which they’d first contacted me. In retrospect, for someone who intends to make a career out of marketing and PR, that’s pretty half-arsed.

    Now I do know which university they’re at ‘cos I did some basic forensics on their email. And thinking about it, I’m tempted to create a PR disaster for them to see how they cope. Now that would be a learning experience!

  4. You would be absolutely amazed (or probably not) how few students in journo/PR/Communication/whatever degrees just don’t bother with the online stuff because “oh I just don’t get it”. I suspect there are a large number of bright-eyed students who are going to be in for quite a rude shock when they graduate.

    Also, for the record, “mongfest” is a perfectly acceptable description for Facebook.

  5. @BernieTB: Well, Sturgeon’s Law. Nothing surprises me any more.

    The rude shock when they graduate will include facing the very human response of someone putting in a bunch of effort — for free! — on a couple of days notice and then not having receipt acknowledged before close of business that day. Pretty poor way to build a relationship so fuck off question 7, right?

    This is just in such stark contrast with a guy last year who explained precisely what his project was, booked a time, sent me background notes and had clearly read a whole bunch of my stuff because he cut to the chase and asked me specific questions about what I’d said in an article the previous year compared with what others had told him.

    That was an intelligent conversation via Skype that went way over time because it was fun and fascinating for both of us.

    This student — are you reading this now? — seems to be going through the motions and ticking the boxes. Low pass at best, I’d say.

  6. I thought a very timely post, even if restating stuff you’ve said elsewhere previously, particularly given the recent rehash doing the rounds of certain journos writing about online commentary and the “OH FUCK THE INTERNET IS HERE”.
    OTOH, it does seem a rather strange bunch of questions, for the reasons you and others in the comments cite.
    I don’t think you gave them a hard time at all. Not as if they’re paying you to educate them. People who ask for opinions unsolicited should be prepared to listen to whatever comes back at them (qv the rage about online commenters being ‘impolite’)
    Hopefully the student concerned will learn from their obvious errors (maybe they’re a first year, first semester student?) and will go on to contribute to our society in was that will surprise us all.
    Have I made sense at all myself? NFI. I do know I need more coffee.

  7. I agree with all the comments here – you gave that student a generous amount of your time and knowledge and I think it will help them and others enormously. It helped me, as although I am fast becoming an “old fart” too I feel like a student all the time these days – constantly learning from others, especially given the evolution of all this “intertubes” stuff which really seems to be taking off! 🙂

    Thanks for sharing this Stil.


  8. Sunday 11am. Still not even an acknowledgement from the student who gave me a deadline of noon Friday. My theory that they just made up shit because I asked them to is seemingly confirmed. Fail.

  9. This was more helpful and less snarky than what I thought it was going to be, going by your initial twitter comments. Very useful for some other budding journo or PR flunky, actually.

    Possibly less so for the student in question, but if they haven’t responded after these unsubtle hints, they’re a lost cause. Or, more kindly, just young and clueless, as we all were one day.

  10. More than a week after answering this student’s questions, they have yet to even acknowledge them, let alone say even the most basic thank-you. Pretty fucking pathetic.

  11. Seconded. If they’re not even going to bother with a small word of thanks, I suspect their career is going to be quite short.

  12. Student life is always busy with assignmentss and activities. Wait until they get to real life working experience. Either they are too busy for acknowledgement or have all the time to themselves because no one hires them. Likely to be the latter.

  13. It’s now more than two weeks since this student got what they asked for. Still no acknowledgement. The only thing that prevents me naming them is me saying I’d post what I wrote without identifying them. I’m sorely tempted to argue that that’s a different promise from not naming someone who failed in basic courtesy.

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