Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The cat-and-mouse game of media relations

Q&As can often prove boring and self-indulgent. They may fill a lot of space in Sunday supplements as a result of fairly minimum effort in transcribing a sycophantic interview by a feature-writer who believes that people really want to know what a celebrity has for breakfast. Even worse is the 'Q&A' based on a ready-made set of 'A's from a PRO determined to get as much exposure as possible for the celebrity client.

It was therefore refreshing to read a Q&A that exposes the sham. Perhaps this was not so surprising as the publication was the Press Gazette and the journalist, Rob McGibbon was clearly feeling anything but sycophantic when he finally managed to pin down Lord Sebastian Coe for an interview on topics ranging from the London Olympics to tabloid revelations of a long-running extra-marital affair.

As a teaching aid for students, the article offers an excellent case study in how not to do PR. Before the Q&A transcription starts, Rob offers a 600-word preamble outlining:
- problems in fixing a date to do the interview
- problems experienced by Coe (apparently) in turning up at a time that had been rearranged by his PA
- the unexplained (and uninvited) presence of Coe's director of communication and public affairs (let's call her flack for short) whose apparent function was to sit, take notes and fidget uncomfortably when the questioning moved onto his private life.

The same edition of the publication includes a letter comparing the relationship between journalists and PRs as one between cats and mice (the writer also offers this view in the Gazette's discussion group), although it isn't clear which is which. In this case, McGibbon clearly felt that the discourtesy that he experienced was justification for exposing the attempts to manage the interview and he embellished his Q&A transcript with 'stage directions' and comments on the flack's actions and interventions.

I'm quite a fan of 'game theory' as a means of explaining the PR-journalist relationship. It highlights the differing set of objectives held by players in the game and the strategies they employ to achieve them. Contemporary definitions of PR, focusing on 'goodwill and understanding', set out an ideal of a win-win game where everyone achieves objectives through open, successful communication.

But this article offers a clear illustration of a zero-sum game in which the success of one player is at the expense of the opponent. McGibbon claimed to 'surrender lamely' to the flack's presence but, in my view, he came out of the game with an engaging and readable Q&A while Coe and his consort tripped over their own hurdles and landed flat on their faces.

My thanks to Paul Bradshaw for alerting me to the article.

Filed under:
Q&A   Press Gazette   Rob McGibbon   Sebastian Coe   media relations   flack   
game theory

1 comment:

Heather Yaxley said...

Thanks for pointing out this story - the celebrity PR tendency to "babysit" and control interviews should be resisted at all costs. We need to seek Covey's "win-win" outcome in media relations.