Don't blame the PR, perhaps

Ever since TVB decided to banish Next Media from covering any of its events, I have slowly realised how Hong Kong has become a place so strange that it doesn't seem to resemble the Hong Kong I grew up with. I have realised that things that were deemed as immoral and out of the line in the past are apparently the norm today. Common sense is no longer common. Logic replaced by fallacy. Integrity is a luxury.

Lately I have been receiving odd requests from PRs. A couple of weeks ago, a public relations executive for one of my interviewees asked me if I were going to write a positive story out of the interview. I couldn't help hitting back and said: "Does it mean if it weren't going to be positive, you are going to banish me just like TVB banishing Next Media?" TVB, Hong Kong's biggest free TV station, banned Next Media (which published Apple Daily, Next Magazine, etc) from covering any of its events and interviewing any of its actors and actresses. Next Media reporters were not allowed to set foot in TVB headquarters and even other spaces where TVB is having an event.

The PR person apologised right away. "It is the wrong question to ask. You are in no place to ask for positive coverage because this is a newspaper and we have editorial independence. I don't work for you, I write for my readers. If you want guaranteed positive coverage, buy an ad. We have a sales department," I shouted.  

Just when I thought Hong Kong people's understanding of editorial independence has hit a new low, this week was even better: someone from the PR agency for Business of Design Week (BODW) ASKED me to put the event's opening event photo in the front page of the South China Morning Post

"The Chief Executive and the Queen of Belgium were at the opening. We think it is important," the PR said with an accent.


"Put the photo in the front page of the SCMP."

I wanted to scream and yell at her "Are you nuts?" But I didn't. Instead I said: "Do you know how much the SCMP front page costs?" 

"No, I don't." 

"You are asking the wrong question. We decide what is important and what to put in the newspaper. You have absolutely no right to TELL us what to do and how to do it."

Apparently the person who called was someone who has absolutely no idea about how the media industry works. She couldn't even tell that I was mocking her out-of-the-line request. I didn't know this person, but I knew how she looked like and she shouldn't have been this naive and uneducated. What was wrong with her head, I wondered. Didn't she learn about this term called "editorial independence" when she was in school? Or, was it because her superior didn't teach her anything? 

And then the phone rang. Her superior calling, asking something similar. "We can send you more information to write about. We have photos." 

I exploded. So obviously ignorance was probably the name of that PR agency. "I don't know how other media works but we do not write a story based on whatever rubbish you give us. Your colleague called and made such an outrageous request to put the photo in our front page. And now you are doing it again? We decide what to cover and how we run our stories. You are in absolutely no place to dictate how our newspaper should run!"

"But the Queen of Belgium is important. She has brought over 100 people to Hong Kong..."

"WE HAVE ALREADY WRITTEN THAT!!!!!!!!" Seriously do PR people read the newspaper that they are talking to these days. It's just some basic background check and homework. Is it too much to ask for?

Then I found out later that this PR agency actually used the SCMP to threaten another Chinese language newspaper. I learnt that this PR agency told this Chinese newspaper that the SCMP has "promised" front page coverage. WTF????!!!!!!! This Chinese language newspaper ignored this PR agency, of course. But the fabrication and the bad attitude are not acceptable no matter what.

The day after this drama, this PR agency treated me like a VIP, which wasn't something I needed really - all I needed was to get my job done, perhaps a desk for me to write and no more nonsensical requests. But they did give me the overwhelming extra attention. When I was flipping Charles Landry's book Creative City while I was doing my last minute preparation for the interview with the author (I read the book when I was doing my master degree), one of the PR agency's staff was surprised that I read the book.

"Err...isn't it something research and do homework for your interviews?" I couldn't help asking.

"No, people don't do that any more," said the PR. He explained that reporters today often did not do any preparation for interviews. He said some reporters from Southeast Asia even asked them what to ask during the interview. They couldn't even be bothered to Google the interviewee and read Wikipedia.

Now I get it. It wasn't exactly the PR's fault. It was reporters who have low professional standards that ruin the reputation of the media, allowing the PRs to think that the media is useless, clueless and they can tell the media to do whatever they want to do. Or perhaps it is their clients who know nothing about the media and have been making unreasonable demands.

But then, if the media owners aren't willing to invest in the reporters and resources to allow them to do their job properly, what kind of reporters can they hire to do the job?

If journalists don't respect their work, no one else does.

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