How to create a journalist backgrounder in 5 mins with Google


Anyone who has ever spent more than 5 minutes working in the world of PR will almost certainly have had to produce a journalist backgrounder in their time.

This is a document prepared for a client before they meet or are interviewed by a journalist. Although different agencies might tinker at the edges, the basic format has always remained the same – namely:

1. Name, Job title, e-mail, phone number, etc.

2. A brief bio of the journalist eg previous titles worked for, areas of interest, etc.

3. Examples of previous articles – usually the most recent ones, but often, for the sake of completeness, going back over a year or more.

In the past, this has probably ranked as one of the most manual and time consuming tasks undertaken by a PR person (and probably still contributing to the PR industry’s chronic over-servicing issue).

Although the basic contact info would normally be easy to find (though not always), and the bio information would hopefully be reasonably up to date (these days you might consider Wikipedia as a good source of bio info – check these examples for Chris Green at IT Pro and Rory Cellan-Jones at the BBC), the bit that could take ages was compiling previous articles. This would normally take the shape of ploughing back through old press clippings, photocopying the relevant ones, compiling a weighty briefing document, and then reading through it all to try and “synopsise” the content for the benefit of the client.

With print content becoming increasingly replicated on the web (and with more original Internet-only material being generated), the time taken for this task can now be drastically reduced with the help of Googe Advanced Search.

For staff journalists, the task couldn’t be easier. Let’s use the example of Cliff Saran at Computer Weekly (no particular reason to single out Cliff – any staff journalist could be used).

Type “cliff saran” site:www.computerweekly.com into Google – back comes all of Cliff’s articles and blog posts. Want to narrow it down? Use advanced search to look back over the last week, month, etc. Want to search for specfic topics or phrases? Simply add them into the search string.

Now, the PR can spend time analysing the content rather than spending most of the time trying to track down the material in the first place. And it doesn’t cost a penny.

But what about freelance journalists who write for a number of different titles? Again, a similar approach can be used – let’s take Danny Bradbury as an example. Type “danny bradbury” into Google. This will bring back a very broad range of results, but the editorial sites are easy to spot. For example, you can see he has written a piece for The Guardian. Typing “danny bradbury” site:www.guardian.co.uk into Google brings back all the articles he has done for the Guardian. Again, you can use advanced search to narrow down over a time period and/or on specific search phrases.

There are some additional benefits to this approach. You can bookmark specific searches for use in future. Even better, why not use a tool such as Diigo to create lists of saved searches that you can share with colleagues (or anyone else you may find relevant). Why not share with clients and allow them to carry out their own reading and analysis of a journalist’s coverage? If agency and client share and compare their findings it should create a far more accurate picture of what a journalist might be interested in.

In short, a journalist backgrounder can be reduced to a series of web links that take no more than five minutes to create. As opposed to a lengthy tome that is time consuming to produce and doesn’t allow for any kind of interactive analysis.

PRs should now be able to focus on value added analysis rather than data collection. It might even go some way to reducing the over-servicing issue – which is no bad thing.

Why PR companies act like 3rd rate direct marketing agencies


Danny Bradbury has been having a problem getting PR companies to use his designated press release e-mail address. In many instances – and in spite of repeated polite requests – some PR firms continue to send press releases to the wrong e-mail address. As Danny says: “Some of these companies are well-intentioned, I’m sure. Judging from the silence, and the continued spray-and-pray press releases blasting to my old address, others simply don’t seem to give a damn.”

He also has had something of an epiphany: “What was interesting for me was the confirmation of something I already suspected — that many companies don’t have central press release distribution lists. They either seem to manage them on a client-by-client basis, or each executive has their own distribution list. This leads to a situation in which getting e-mail addresses changed with PR companies is like turning a supertanker around. It happens very slowly.”

I’d argue there are more fundamental underlying issues of which this problem is actually a symptom rather than the cause. Consider the following:

Q: Who starts PR companies?

A: People who previously worked for other PR companies.

Q: How are PR companies structured?

A: Most often, in pretty much the same way the founders’ previous agencies were structured.

In short, in spite of tinkering at the edges, the basic structure of PR agencies has remained fundamentally unchanged for decades. Here’s the typical PR agency growth pattern. A couple of people working at an existing agency go off to start their own business. Their motivation is usually a mix of feeling undervalued by their current employers and a belief that they could “do things better.” They proceed to start the new business, win some clients and then hire a few people. In spite of their original desire to do things differently, they end up using the one model they are used to – ie the one they got away from in the first place.

In practical terms, this means you end up with different account teams who are incentivised on the basis of the fees their group brings. The company may espouse a philosophy of openness and sharing – but in reality, unless senior management invests in ensuring the right values are understood and adhered to – it tends to encourage information hoarding. So account exec A finds out that journalist X has changed e-mail addresses or wants to be contacted in a certain way. Although he/she should update a centralised database, they keep it to themselves because they think it gives them some kind of advantage over other account groups.

This is clearly dysfunctional behaviour. So why does it continue to happen? There are a number of reasons:

- senior management are happy so long as they hit their revenue targets. So they ignore this dysfunctional behaviour. They will only bother about it when it appears to have a seriously detrimental impact on revenues.

- one of the curious paradoxes of PR companies working in the technology sector is that while they pump out information on behalf of their clients regarding best IT practice, etc, the number of agencies with a robust and properly documented data management strategy is rare.

- the odd journalist like Danny or Chris Anderson might complain about the situation, but until there is a radical revolt by hacks on a wide scale, there is no real motivation to do much about it.

In the end, many PR companies seem to treat press releases and media relations as a form of direct marketing – and do it in such a way that even a 3rd rate direct marketing agency would be embarrassed by. Bog standard things like opt-in, unsubscribe, data protection standards, etc seem to be resolutely ignored by many.

How long can this behaviour last?

As Danny says: “Add to this that most releases seem to be irrelevant to an awful lot of people, and it seems to me that press release distribution, which I suspect is a fundamental revenue generating proposition for many PR agencies, is becoming an increasingly pointless and irritating way of communicating with many journalists. I just wonder how long it will take the PR agencies’ clients to realise it.”

The only thing I’d disagree with here is that press release distribution itself is profitable – it isn’t the distribution that PR companies make money on, but the actual writing of the releases. In order to justify the fees they charge, the easiest thing in the book for an agency to recommend (or to agree with a client to do) is write a press release.

It has to be a key explanation for the volume of irrelevant releases that get sent to journalists.

And it is worth repeating from an earlier post: “leading business journalist Peter Bartram noted that in 2006, a sample of 89 UK tech and business journalists received on average more than 19,100 press releases a week. Put another way, 993,200 per year. According to Bartram, “the vast bulk of these releases, say the journalists concerned, are either irrelevant to their interests or contain no discernible story.”

You can get a feel for the kind of press release hitting journalist in-boxes by looking at Daryl Willcox’s Sourcewire or Response Source. For example, would you put out a press release to “pay tribute” to someone holding down the same job for 5 years? You might if you were the Prime Minister – but a call centre manager?

As Danny says, how long before PR agency clients start to realise what is going on – there is a world of opportunity for those PR firms who are genuinely taking a different approach.

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