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Thu 24 Jan 2008 12:00 AM

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The journalist and the machine

The corporate, PR and journalism worlds can misunderstand each other with spectacularly messy consequences.

Nigel is a journalist on a weekly magazine. He’s good at his job, which means filing two or three incisive and highly readable features a week plus a good handful of news stories. For these, he relies on a mixture of good contacts, a lot of Google alerts, the local papers and a quick scan of each days’ inbox full of press releases, most of which are dross but some of which can be followed up. On a bad week he might even use one or two with no follow-up, purely because time has a habit of running out now and then.

The features take up most of his time, often requiring a number of interviews and meetings for background as well as more for opinions and quotes. He’ll crack some of these features off quite quickly, others can be on the boil for a few weeks.

Bob is a busy executive with a major US security company and he’s visiting the Middle East to review the company’s 60-strong and growing operation. Security systems for corporates are a big and growing business in the region and Bob’s company has taken the region seriously enough to send him in: he’s global VP of a $3 billion company. The Middle East reports through London and the local GM and marketing manager have already had several conference calls with the slightly panicky communications team in London. They have never had Bob in the EMEA region before and they want to make sure nothing goes wrong. And the corporate team have already let London know that this is a big one for them. The team in Dubai, as a consequence, have really been feeling the heat about Bob’s visit.

Nigel takes a call from a local PR company offering an interview with a real hot-shot executive who’s visiting called Bob. Apparently he’s a player in the security market and is here to talk about opening regional operations for a really big security company. Nigel agrees to take the interview with Bob as it sounds interesting. The PR guy is slightly more annoying than usual, asking him about his background and intended story angle.

The symptoms of big executive fear are always the same: it’s the fifth time this particular PR company has asked him for his background and, what’s more, Nigel does feel the request for his story angle in the same call as the interview’s being sold on is hardly reasonable. A subsequent call, three days before the interview is due to happen, confirms that Bob can only meet Nigel at 7pm in Jebel Ali. Nigel lives in Mirdif and won’t be home to see his young son until way past 9pm. Dinner will be in the dog. Again. Nigel considers canning the whole thing, but he’s got an issue to put to press and nothing else in the bag right now.

The PR company is asking about his story angle again: the exec actually asks him for a copy of his questions. Nigel is polite, but firm: it’s not happening.

The PR company hasn’t actually had any meaningful dialogue with Nigel before, let alone about Bob, his company or its market and so has no idea of what Nigel’s views, interests or approach are likely to be. This is now turning into a problem as London is insisting on full information about the journalist, the publication and a market briefing for Bob.

The Dubai office gives the PR company a hard time and they finally deliver the documents the day before Bob flies in. They’re sketchy and London is concerned as a result: they insist that the Dubai GM and his marketing manager sit in on the interview.

The day of Bob’s visit dawns and everything goes pretty well: a customer event in the morning, a number of customer meetings following and a visit to a major site in the afternoon. The major site, a very sensitive customer, is a significant account to Bob’s company and the customer is really interested in some of the new things that the company is bringing out and so Bob and the group are delayed.

Nigel, who arrived a little early, waits at the hotel they’ve arranged to meet at – he’s joined by the PR guy, who arrived a little late. The PR guy tries to be friendly, but Nigel’s irritated and concerned about getting home now and just stares into his coffee.

Bob arrives 35 minutes late. He’s got his GM and marketing manager in tow and they all file into a meeting room together with the PR. Nigel waits outside, checking his skin for signs of leprosy.

After another ten minutes, Nigel is called in to the room for his audience with Bob. He’s sat at a boardroom table facing four people in suits. A normally relatively mild-mannered man, Nigel is really quite irritated by now, but is professional enough to put this to one side and get on with the interview. It quickly becomes obvious that Bob knows nothing about the Middle East and precious little about the world outside the continental USA. He is evasive regarding any financial information, future plans or disclosing details of any large deals or customers.

Nigel knows a little bit about Bob’s company and asks about the big customer that Bob visited that afternoon. Bob denies the meeting. Nigel’s girlfriend works for the company and so he continues to probe regarding the relationship between Bob and his customer.

The local GM interrupts Nigel to tell him that it would probably be better to drop this line of questioning. Nigel points out that he’s perfectly entitled to pursue that line of questioning. The PR guy steps in and suggests a change of topic.

Nigel disagrees. He wants to know why Bob is lying about the customer site visit. The atmosphere is by now quite electric. And then Nigel asks about the Saudi bank that’s filing a case against Bob’s company in London. It’s common knowledge in the regional market and has even popped up on a couple of websites. However, it’s news to Bob and all hell quietly breaks loose. Bob handles the question badly, his GM steps in and makes it worse and the marketing manager jumps in, too, and refers to the Saudi incident as merely one of a number of issues that security companies have to deal with in a difficult region like the Middle East. Nigel, who is taping the interview, is told that this comment was off the record when he asks follow up questions.

Nigel’s wife calls to ask where he is. In the circumstances, he takes the call, leaving the room briefly. He returns and finishes the interview as quickly as possible. It hasn’t been an enjoyable experience.

The next day, Nigel has the tape transcribed. It contains Bob and his team complaining about Nigel as he was out of the room and also the whispered briefing that Bob was given by his team on the four lawsuits that had been filed by unhappy customers in the region, totalling millions of dollars.

Does he use the material in his subsequent feature?

Alexander McNabb is the group account director at Spot On Public Relations.

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