Lessons in PR and journalism

The small spat between Techcrunch and TuneCore has provided a bit of minor entertainment on a slow afternoon, but also acts as a perfect example of getting both initial enquiries and PR strategy a bit on the wonky side. [For those who don't click the link: Techcrunch intern emails TuneCore press email, gets a slightly curt and defensive email back from TuneCore CEO (Why are you asking? How will this information be used? Who are you? Who funds you?), intern re-emails, gets a bit of a curt reply back].

There's been a lot of (rather amusing) back and forth in the comment between those who think TuneCore's CEO committed a howler and those who think the initial Techcrunch query was right to elicit the response it did.

Now the initial query looks harmless enough:

"Hello, I’m currently conducting research for TechCrunch’s company database (CrunchBase.com). Can you give me information on the funding TuneCore has had to date? Can you provide me with the rounds, amounts, dates and investors? Thanks for your help.

Peter"

In honesty, I've had a lot vaguer, confusing queries come my way. At least this is pretty easy to understand what they're after. But if you're a business and get an approach like this, I could see why you'd be wary, especially if it's from a webmail account (gmail in this instance). Again, I've seen a few similar emails to this in the past which raise a few questions.

So, yes, there's a web address on there, which helps, but when I was chasing stories or information from people who might not get contacted on a regular basis by the press or I hadn't spoken to before, then this would all be laid out. And it was largely done by phone and probably still should be, if the person on the other end was contactable or there was a reasonably obvious number.

The web and social media is fantastic for building relationships and developing contacts but sometimes there's just no substitute for picking up the phone, even if you have to repeat yourself in the email later. At least you get a rapport and can explain yourself and what you need in the first instance.

Now there's a not unreasonable argument that if you're a startup you should have heard of TechCrunch, but that's still an assumption and in journalism and PR you should never assume anything. Just as with PR, the more information you can give, the better the response is likely to be.

But whatever the merits or otherwise of the initial enquiry, it certainly didn't warrant the response it got. By all means query it but if the email was sent to a press contact address then you've got to accept that anything you say could end up in the public domain.

As for the language - fair enough, Jeff Price might not have been too impressed with the initial enquiry (and lord knows I've seen enough that make you want to headbutt the desk in sheer frustration) and may have even suspected the email was bogus. But, if it's come through on the press contact email, as far as you know you're dealing with the media until proven otherwise.

And, at the end of the day, there's just no excuse for rudeness. You may think the enquiry isn't worth your time, you may be in a bad mood, it may have caused you more problems than necessary, but a sarky line will kill any chance of building any future relationship with the organisation. It works on both sides - as a journalist, there were several PR people I'd do my best to avoid because they were more trouble than the story was worth. Similarly, PRs will mentally note any journalist that's especially difficult to deal with and do the same.

Put simply, even if the person on the other end of the email or phone is making you want to scream, keeping it civil usually pays off in the long term. I'll never forget the absolutely maddening PR person who rang back a few weeks later with a great lead.

As for setting the press email to send direct to the CEO, that's just plain daft. Even if you want the CEO to respond to most requests, they're likely to be a busy person. At the very least somebody should be filtering and responding before it gets there.

The whole Techcrunch post could be printed out and discussed in media training schools across the country, even if it was ultimately a bit unnecessary and achieved nothing bar providing a good giggle for anybody reading it.

As Mark Twain once said, it's far better to keep your mouth shut and let people think you're an idiot than to open it and confirm that.

And yes, given that I file anything relating to me under the category idiot, I most definitely would earn the disapproval of Mr. Twain.