Worst. PR line. Ever

12 Mar

There are a bunch of PR-isms I’ve come to dislike over the years, but the one I really loathe – which I’ve heard several times over the past few weeks – is “we’re not talking about that today.”

Interviews can be like an arm-wrestling match... or a bad Sylvester Stallone movie.

If you’re a journalist who covers technology, you’ve no doubt experienced it. For the regular reader, here’s how it works: The intrepid reporter, attending a product launch or some such event, is interviewing a representative from the company. The journalist asks a question that’s unrelated to the product and the company representative, or perhaps a public relations person within earshot, replies with, “We’re not talking about that today,” and then proceeds to get back on to the topic of whatever it is they’re trying to sell.

In one recent example, a company was showing off its new video game and I asked the creator whether he thought the mainstream had pretty much gotten over its obsession with violence in the medium. He was about to answer, but then a PR person jumped in with, you guessed it, “we’re not talking about that today.”

As PR lingo goes, it’s a particularly offensive line. It has become the modern-day “no comment,” which PR people train their clients not to say because it’s either evasive or makes it sound like the person has something to hide. “We’re not talking about that today” is worse, though, because of the subtext that goes with it, which is: “Hey dummy journalist, we’re controlling this conversation, not you.”

As far as messaging goes, that’s a bad approach. In many ways, a simple “no comment” – which basically says “I don’t want to talk about that” – is better than subtly telling the journalist that they’re not in control of their own interview. In the video game example, the PR person’s response ticked me off enough that I ended the interview.

The larger question this raises is: Who does control an interview? The answer is, of course: it depends. In many cases, the journalist drives the conservation, since he or she is the one asking the questions. The interviewee can steer the talk with whatever answers they come up with, although it’s then the journalist’s option to take control back by pressing certain questions or dropping the topic.

In other cases, particularly where the interviewee is a strong personality, the journalist might just sit back for the ride and let ’em rip. The best example of this that I can recall is my interview with Steel Panther a few years ago. I went in with a list of questions, but tossed them aside when it became clear that I (or anyone, really) wasn’t in control.

The bottom line is, in almost every interview – especially in technology circles – the interviewee is trying to sell the journalist something. Nobody likes to be sold something solely on the seller’s terms, which is why it’s dumb to subtly insult the buyer by trying to exert control over the terms of the deal. That’s what insurance and cellphone companies do, and no one likes them.

So, to any PR people out there reading this (and I know there’s at least a few), please tell your clients to avoid saying, “We’re not talking about that today.” They’re not going to get anywhere with that kind of messaging.


Posted by on March 12, 2012 in Uncategorized


11 responses to “Worst. PR line. Ever

  1. nicolepointon

    March 12, 2012 at 12:12 am

    1. PR goons suck. 2. A little probing for relevance – from both sides of the interview – goes a long way.

  2. Marc Venot

    March 12, 2012 at 12:31 am

    Maybe ask the PR if someone in the company is allowed to answer this kind of questions or if he can provide with a written statement? maybe if you tell them that this more global view is important because it relates to the niche, its saturation or even the bad reputations of those games that can’t enter the media mainstream or a wider consumer base.

  3. Steve Hart

    March 12, 2012 at 2:12 am

    I’m frankly sick of PR-types. Especially when they ask me to send them question by email ahead of an interview “so we can give you the best answers”.
    It’s not that I don’t want the best answers, but I’d prefer genuinely held off the cuff quotes. I want the real answers – not some sanitized BS where five pars of ramble add up to a “no”.
    I’ve even put a line on my website now saying “no pr agencies”.
    But we journalists are outgunned 2 – 1.

  4. Phil (@Stringfellow573)

    March 12, 2012 at 4:54 am

    Can you say: “Spin Doctor”
    People are highly suggestive. Each of us needs an education system that trains us to “think critically” about everything read, said and done. Filter the data and mine the truth like a prospector up in the Yukon. One teacher once told us, “Question everything, nothing is true until proof is provided.” False, fake, counterfeit and imitation are extremely plentiful, true is rare.

  5. randifer

    March 12, 2012 at 7:11 am

    Sorry to be the spoiler boys and girls, Pete, I’ve agreed with more of your points than not in recent weeks, but this is not the case here.

    PR persons exist for two reasons. The first I will grant you, is to manage bad press, but the second one is to avoid misrepresentation in situations where it is most likely to occur. This includes an inappropriate question posed to an inappropriate employee in a context that might allow it to seem as if the employee had authorization to speak on behalf of the company.

    In todays business environment you have NO CHOICE but to “manage” what is said to the press, especially at a “company event”. The person presentating may be authorized to speak about the game being demonstrated, but they may not have the authority to speak on behalf of the company about anything else. However to the reporters sitting there, making this distinction is not always a major concern.

    In addition, had there been a slip of the tongue, or a poor word choice made about a contraversial topic, and you know for a fact that the entire focus of the “event” has now shifted, and will never return to where it was.

    Maybe you should think of the statement not as much as: “Hey dummy, we control this meeting”

    It is more like:

    “Our relationship is based on mutual respect. If you respect the terms of our meeting agenda, and ask for an oportunity to discuss off topic questions once the current agenda has been covered, we will respect your credentials as a journalist with additional opportunity for advanced access to our products. Should you choose to dishonour this, and disrespect not only our company, but the other journalists here that want to stay on topic, we will have to revisit our decision to invite you in the future.”

    Do not make the mistake of assuming that this company NEEDS you. You may be an asset to them, but everything requires a return on investment, and everything has an opportunity cost. If you take up a seat at an event, someone else didn’t get the invite. If they spend money for a venue, invitations, handouts, manpower to produce the demo, etc, it is money not spent somewhere else, such as on advertizing. If having the press show up means letting them run ruckshaw over the meeting agenda because we don’t want to offend their egos, maybe it does not have appropriate ROI compared to a set of posters in every game store, or some simple product placement in a TV show somewhere that does not get one of the beanie heads from development blindsided by questions that are not part of their job description.

    Sure the game companies are trying to sell something, but, so are you. You are selling the quality of your media access to them, and they pay you for it indirectly by providing you content that you in turn sell to those same media outlets. It’s a symbiotic relationship based on respect.

    Lastly, you should note that Not Now is very different from No Comment. the former provides at least the hope that there is a comment, just NOT NOW.

    Now can we get back to trying to break the oligopoly that is the Telco/Cable companies ownership of the internet backbone in Canada and get prices back into sync with reality?? 😉

    • Parallax Abstraction

      March 12, 2012 at 8:06 am

      Now can we get back to trying to break the oligopoly that is the Telco/Cable companies ownership of the internet backbone in Canada and get prices back into sync with reality??

      “We’re not talking about that today.” 🙂

      • randifer

        March 12, 2012 at 3:38 pm

        I have to say I set myself up for that!! Well put I will respectfully resubmit that question at a more appropriate time

    • petenowak2000

      March 12, 2012 at 10:31 am

      Those are some good points, but I’m afraid I disagree with a number of them. Firstly, journalists should be given some credit – if we do our homework on who we’re talking to, we generally know the topics they’re knowledgeable on and what they’re able to speak to. You obviously wouldn’t ask a humble engineer his thoughts on labour relations in China, for example (well, you might, but how that would be germane to your story is hard to imagine). In my video game example, the interviewee WAS the company and certainly was well versed – and apparently willing – to speak on the topic.

      As for journalists selling… do we sell stories to editors? Sure, but that’s the extent of the conscious selling we do. Are we selling the company access to our media outlet? I suppose you can look at it that way, but that’s certainly not a conscious move on the part of the journalist. We simply write for who we write for. That has never entered into my thinking, at least.

      Lastly, in regards to how much money a company is spending to put on an event, that really shouldn’t be any journalist’s concern. The expense is part of the marketing budget for whatever is being sold and if the company decides not to hold events because reporters are getting too uppity with their questions, that’s their problem. Clearly companies do need the media – if they didn’t, we wouldn’t have to shovel our way out from a mountain of press releases every day.

      There are literally zillions of stories we can write – the good ones almost always come from open conversations rather than meticulously managed events. If we know we’re going to get the latter, we’re less likely to show up and instead move on to the next of those zillion stories. What you hope to have at the end of it all is a good story that adds something interesting to the world, rather than a piece of advertising crafted into another form.

      • randifer

        March 12, 2012 at 5:16 pm

        Pete, you are not entirely off base, but I think we may be miscommunicating

        Just to clarify:

        Just because someone believes that a person “IS” the company does not mean that infact they are. Investors, and others with a stake may have found a need to mute what might otherwise be inappropriate off the cuff comments made by the person. For that matter, he may very well have choosen to do so himself if he is aware of a personal lack of what one might call “reflex verbage”

        The PR person was there for a reason. If until now everything this person said was golden, the PR team would have stood down.

        Next when I said you sell yourself to them, I stand by that, but not as you understood it. What I mean is that in any business relationship, there has to be mutual consideration. You, either through shamless self promotion, or through your industry affiliations, sell them on the idea that you deserve a seat at their table more than someone else. You let potential subjects know that you exist, and you present to them an image that you are seen as a fair / impartial industry personality who’s word is valued by others. You may not think of it as a sale, but we all sell, all the time. It is what it is.

        Lastly, you are right, how much they spend is not your concern. However, when it comes to any event, be it scripted, or off the cuff, you must realize that there is an investment on their part, regardless of how much of one. They need to make that money work for them the best it can. If they spend $X on an event and consider that as the cost of getting their message out, however the event is to some extent hijacked by a third party, and they never actually manage to get their point out there, they will have to consider that what they spent may have been for nothing, and next time they might use a totally different course of action.

        In the end however, it is simply a matter of respect. If the question is off topic, it is best asked in a different forum. No one likes to be blindsided, and once you have had it happen to you, there is a good chance you will look upon those responsible with a level of mistrust that you as a journalist cannot afford.

        As for who is running the show?
        Who sent out the invitations?

  6. Ibrahim Khider

    March 12, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    “I asked the creator whether he thought the mainstream had pretty much gotten over its obsession with violence in the medium.” What does this question have to do with their product? Ask them about their product, not what the mainstream is obsessed over. If the guy (or any of us) knew what the mainstream wanted there would be no need for PR.

    • petenowak2000

      March 12, 2012 at 2:08 pm

      It’s hard to be more specific without identifying the individuals in question, but let me assure you that in the context of the game, it was very relevant.

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