A few seconds of your time

A JOURNALIST called Paul Taylor once wrote a brilliant article in the Manchester Evening News about the time he was granted a 58-second interview with Beyonce.

The interview was organised to publicise a Beyonce tour, which included a show at the M.E.N. Arena. Taylor was told beforehand that he would only be allowed to ask one question.

Taylor’s brief chat with Beyonce wasn’t conducted in person. Instead, she was holed up in a hotel room somewhere (I’m picturing luxury apartment rather than Travelodge, although I have no way of knowing for certain) while a group of journalists, including Taylor, took it in turns to ask their one question each via telephone using a conference call system.

The M.E.N. reporter listened to the other journalists’ efforts, then used his one question to ask Beyonce to say a few words about coming to Manchester. She gave an anodyne response about how great the people of the city were, and that was it: an interview that was of no use to Taylor whatsoever.

So instead, he wrote a far more entertaining article about the comical level of restrictions placed on him by Beyonce’s public relations people.

Absurdity doesn’t happen overnight. The human mind can only accept the ridiculous as normal if it is introduced gradually. All the same, it would be fascinating to know the people who organised this particular fiasco could possibly have thought that an interview lasting less than a minute was worth the bother to anyone.

Did Beyonce’s PR people sit down and work out the exact length of time she could afford to commit to each media outlet?

Bob: Hey Hank, you finished that Beyonce interview schedule yet?
Hank: Well Bob, we can give 15 minutes to David Letterman, 10 minutes to CNN, six-and-a-half minutes for the New York Times, the Sun, the Times and the Mirror, four minutes to the Daily Telegraph and two minutes 20 seconds to the London Evening Standard.
Bob: Hey, what about the British local press?
Hank: Hey, cool it man, it got that covered. One minute 13 seconds for the Birmingham Mail, 58 seconds for the Manchester Evening News, 49 seconds for the Yorkshire Post.
Bob: Hey Hank, you left out the Farmers Guardian.
Hank: No, they get seven seconds. It’s on the list next to the Keswick Reminder.
Bob: My bad.

(Several weeks later)

Journalist: Beyonce, can you give the Farmers Guardian readers your thoughts on the environmental benefits of sustainable arable farming?
Beyonce: Well, I think –
Click. Brrrrr.

I thought of Taylor’s story – and in particular the restrictions that can be placed on interviews – when I was given the chance to speak to a leading Premier League footballer last week.

The identity of the player isn’t really significant to the story. You can have a guess at who he is if you like, but all you really need to know is that he plays for England.

I was told that the player in question would be available for an interview set up by one of the companies which sponsor the England team. So far, so simple. The deal with these interviews usually is that you ask the player a few questions about England, a few questions about his club, get him to say something about the sponsor too, then go away and write it up.

Then, when you put the interview in the paper, you use a photograph of the player standing alongside whatever it is the sponsor is known for (football, car, steak pastie, etc), and make sure you give the company a decent namecheck.

I accept it’s not exactly hard-nosed journalism, but sometimes it’s the price you have to pay for getting access to the big names – and it can be a price worth paying if you get a decent interview (itself by no means guaranteed).

The problem was that the public relations company organising this particular interview seemed to be playing a game of “How Far Can We Push Our Luck?”

And the result was a demand for the most restricted sports interview I’ve ever been asked to do.

The restrictions were as follows:
1) No questions about the player’s club. Questions about England only.
2) The article and headline must be approved by the PR company before publication.
3) It must be published within a certain time period (which was set out in the ludicrous contract I was e-mailed to sign).

In other words, the PR company wanted an advert for their client in the paper I was working for, without having to do anything so difficult as write it or pay for it.

Newspapers, for reasons of credibility, don’t allow their articles or headlines to be approved by outsiders in advance. So we told them to get stuffed. (It also had the effect of making me vow never to use this particular sponsor’s service again, and I’m certainly not giving them a namecheck here. A publicity triumph, you might say.)

The more I thought about this incident, the more I was reminded of the advertorial features I used to have to write during my early days on local free weekly papers. Advertorial (or advertising editorial) basically meant an article that a local business had paid for to put into the paper, clearly marked as an advert. They would be sold by the advertising department, but it would be down to one of the news reporters to write them.

They rarely went well, which was why the reporters tried to avoid doing them wherever possible, and they usually ended up being shifted on to the most junior member of staff.

The reporter would have to ring up the business – usually a local car showroom – and get the bloke running it to wax lyrical for 20 minutes about great deals and special offers. Car showroom man would, at some point, generally try to persuade the reporter to “come down and have a look for yourself”.

The reporter would then have to think of a way to wriggle out of this without offending car showroom man, on account of having 14 other stories to write that day, and not having three hours to spend wandering round looking at second-hand motors.

Reporter would then send out a photographer to take a picture of said business, set about writing up the article, then wait for car showroom bloke to ring up and complain when the paper came out because there was no mention of the special offer on 12-month servicing.

Still, he was more than entitled to complain, as he’d paid for his advert. And he was just trying to do his best for his business.

There’s an argument that the media should be grateful for any access to these people at all. It’s an argument I like to file away in the “get over yourself” category.

However, there’s a more valid argument that points out how difficult it is to satisfy the vast number of media outlets demanding big-name interviews. Every newspaper and glossy mag wants a chat with Beyonce, every sports section and football mag wants a chat with a Premier League star. You can’t please everyone.

Maybe it’s worth trying – and some PR people are astonishingly good at striking the right balance – but there is a limit. If you’re going to place that many restrictions on an interview, your client has got to be pretty special. Otherwise, it really isn’t worth anyone’s time – the reporter, the PR people or the interviewee.


2 Responses to A few seconds of your time

  1. Garry Cook says:

    Name and shame please.

  2. mikewhalley says:

    Fast Track Communications (working on behalf of the sponsor) were the company who contacted me regarding the interview:

    According to to the Fast Track website, they have “strong relationships with editors, journalists, broadcasters, photographers and bloggers”.

    Presumably, then, they do not always conduct themselves in the way they did with me.

    They were working in partnership with 1966 Entertainment (who drew up the ludicrous interview contract), who manage the commercial interests of the England team:

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