Which came first: the chicken or the PR consultancy?

A how-to for public relations consultancies in dealing with journalists.

This week I had occasion to talk to representatives of one of the largest public relations companies in the country. What they wanted to know was this: how did the paper function and could they work better with the journalists? In other words, what do journalists want?

As they filed into the small meeting room, some 25 or so 25-year-olds, I began to feel increasingly nervous, rather like General Custer at the last stand. The room seemed unnaturally warm, and it wasn't just the change in the weather.

I began by reading them a letter I had been sent the day before by a PR man from a firm that is a rival of theirs. It read like this:

Good morning Rupert,

Hope this e-mail finds you well. Let me first introduce myself, this is XXXXX XXXXX working as a PR Account Executive at XXXXXX XXXXX. (He did tell me his name and where he worked, but it would be harsh to reveal that here.)

I'm looking forward to conduct for them an interview with your esteemed publication "Khaleej Times".

Oops. Dear old XXXXX. Not only can he not write English, he's an idiot. He's one XXXXXX that I won't be dealing with in future. So here are some recommendations so you don't repeat his mistake, and I think these apply to all business dealings, not just the daily battle between flaks and hacks:

1. Do your research. Identify your target, find out the person's interests, likes and dislikes, age and ways of working. A good trick with journalists in particular is to praise an article of theirs. Also read their paper, even if not all of them do so themselves.

2. Having done all that, make friends with them. In the film Withnail and I, the two heroes go to Wales for a weekend. It's wet, their cottage is cold and empty, and there's no food in the house. The only edible thing in the place is a chicken, walking around with a yellow beak. "Quick," says one of them, "I think you ought to kill it instantly in case it starts trying to make friends with us." Moments later, you see the chicken, plucked and gutted, sitting in the Aga, cooking gently. You could say the journalists are Withnail and I, and the PR agents are the chicken. If you are in public relations, it is your job to make friends before you get fried. As for XXXXX, it's too late. Metaphorically speaking, he's toast. Or even roast chicken.

3. Find out what journalists want and when. It has been said there are two things you never see being made: sausages and journalism. Our paper is a finely tuned machine, as sweetly running as a complicated Swiss watch, but in other places I have worked, it can be chaotic. Generally, journalists want information quickly, honestly and from as high up the firm as possible. There are certain times of the day that are better to contact a journalist than others. For example, few journalists get up early in the morning, although there are a number in this office who get up with the lark, mainly to run their children to school.

4. Don't play silly games. We had an incident last year with a PR guy. One of our reporters thought he knew where bankers were planning to gather to discuss Dubai World's debt restructuring, so he phoned a PR man to ask him to confirm. "If I tell you, will you promise not to run the story?" Perhaps rashly, our journalist agreed. Half an hour later, the PR man phoned back to confirm that it was at exactly the hotel that we had mentioned. In other words, he had tricked us into a deal that was no deal at all. This fellow won't be trusted in the future.

5. Be honest. If you don't know something, or don't think you can get the information, say so. Be as straightforward as possible. Don't lie. Don't be evil. At least, that way, if you get a reputation for honesty, when you need to bluff or cheat, you have a chance of getting away with it.

Finally, I was asked an exceedingly tricky question. "Which is the best day to bury bad news?" The honest answer to that is that there is no good day to bury bad news, although there's no doubt that people tend to be livelier at the beginning of the week than late in the day at the end of the week.

It was only afterwards as I was driving away from the meeting that I realised there may soon be a very good day to bury bad news. If I were a PR man with a number of tricky accounts, each flush with terrible news to conceal, I would be busy writing the press releases and getting my clients to approve them for circulation. Then on the day that Muammar Qaddafi is finally toppled, I would go into my office, press "send" and go out for a long lunch, confident that the phone would not ring once.