Wednesday 29 July 2015

How not to do public relations

What does public relations have in common with speaking French, swimming and making love?

Simply that I have a perfectly sound theoretical knowledge of how to do all of the above, but struggle to put it into practice.

I can read French without too much trouble, but am immediately struck dumb if anyone asks me the simplest question in the language.

An entire decade of RGS tuition has left me unable to swim a stroke.

As for love … well, at least one of the chief compensations of marriage and old age is being able to pull over into the pits in the great human race for carnal fulfilment.

(I am surprised that advocates of equal marriage have not done more to outflank their opponents by pointing out that it is pretty much guaranteed to bring gay sexual activity to a non-grinding halt.)

And then there is public relations, at which my hopelessness was cruelly exposed by that “Life in the Freezer Cabinet” TV series a couple of years ago.

Fortunately I am held back from total despair by the abundant evidence that so many alleged practitioners of PR are even more useless than I am.

Because it certainly does not require the sort of skills you need to send a spacecraft to Pluto or repair a potentially fatal bleed on the brain.

In essence, it requires no more than the application of a healthy dose of common sense. Present your client positively, without resorting to untruths, and treat people as you would like to be treated yourself.

As an example of how not to do PR, let me cite the pre-performance drinks invitation I once received from the country’s best-known country house opera venue.

They said they wanted to show their appreciation for the donations I had been making to support their work for a number of years.

So my wife and I were duly ticked off a list by a lady with a clipboard and ushered into a room where we were handed a glass of champagne (each, to be fair) and then comprehensively ignored for half an hour.

We were not alone in this, because the entire fundraising team was eagerly clustered around another couple, who evidently had pockets of Marianas Trench deepness, in a far corner of the room.

My, how they drank in the plutocrat’s pearls of wisdom and chortled appreciatively at pretty much everything he said.

As an exercise in anti-PR it was up on a par with inviting someone to dinner and then turning your back on him and talking exclusively to the person on your other side.

And, yes, I have had that happen to me, too. Unfortunately when I was too young and shy to make a stormy exit with some choice observations on my host’s behaviour.

I tried desperately to engage the attention of someone – anyone – from the opera company’s PR team but it was like trying to catch the eye of a waitress in a particularly busy and badly-run restaurant.

Finally, on the way out, I managed almost literally to grab hold of the man who had invited us, and present him with a proof copy of the short book on opera I had just written.

I was canvassing recommendations for it at the time, and had already collected some very supportive quotes from other country house opera chiefs.

Could his company possibly take a look, correct any errors where they themselves were mentioned, and let me know what they thought of it?

But of course they could. He would be delighted. That was in summer 2013 and, despite an email reminder or two, I am still waiting for a response.

Do you think that, in the meantime, I have (a) continued, (b) increased or (c) cancelled my financial support for this great institution?

Take a wild guess.

So here is the first lesson in my occasional series on PR and how not to do it. Never invite people to anything if you aren’t prepared to make an effort to engage with them if they turn up.

Because they’d probably much prefer to be curled up with a good book, improving their theoretical knowledge of Balzac or the breast stroke.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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