when pr ladies go off-message and tell the truth

… or, Can it be feminist to call an immature female reporter a girl?

A few weeks ago, I had to deal with a young, inexperienced “editor” for a commercial publication that happens to be a Web site with a primarily blog format. She had sent in a form letter to solicit participation in their site, and immediately posted an extended whine that, at points, rose to the level of snark. Mostly, it was an immature screed about auto-responders and the requirements one needed to follow to get email requests through. It’s the commercialization of the worst the blogosphere has to offer – where snotty, poorly informed opinion doubles for content. (I won’t post the link, as I’d rather see their traffic stay in the low double digits, but I’ll send you the links if you want to see them.)

The post also revealed her lack of professional reporting experience – she hadn’t done research to determine whether my client even had a blog, and didn’t check the Web site for press contacts, a basic thing for a reporter to do. And as the blogosphere is a place where most of us like to put on our best face or funniest mask, she apparently chose her Facebook profile photo for her headshot. I wondered what was wrong with her editor.

Our staff read her post, and didn’t think too highly of either the writing quality or the tone. And as for the photo, well, it looked like she had just come out of the pool in her nicest strapless swimsuit, and was trying to get the water out of her ear. (Never mind what was behind the ears- clearly that was wet.) The internal snark reached a wit level that would have blown this pub out of the water, but I told people to hold back, mostly because I saw myself in the writer – young, smartass, clueless. Fully acknowledging that part of smart ass is, infact, smart. More than anything, she reminded me of myself as a 15 yo writer/editor for my high school newspaper – utterly convinced of my wit and genius, and only needing to prove to others that I was, in fact, pretty.

So I did something I have never done professionally, inspired by that worst of all motives, the self-convinced, self-identification-based “good” intention. When I called her to tell her we had reviewed her interview request, I gave her advice with her rejection, as if I knew who she was – namely a young me. Advice on writing. On self-presentation and why her chosen photo undermined her seriousness.

And, in a particularly brutal move, when she said, “I wasn’t trying to be some kind of bitch, you know,” I responded directly:

“No, no, no one called you that here. I would not call you that. Bitch, no. But if I may be frank, petulant 15 year old girl? Yes.”

I heard her groan, as if I had punched her in the stomach. It was not a good feeling for either of us, although I had hoped she understood what I was saying…. in the way I had wished someone had given me that advice early on.

I encouraged her to write directly to the person she insulted, to apologize for the way her post landed, and to make an effort to erase any bad feelings. Ben was on day 5 at home with croup, and I was headed to an emergency MD appointment to see if he would have to go to the hospital, and so I had to cut the call short, but I offered my email, my phone number, my successor’s number, and told her she could contact me anytime.

What happened next? She ran to her editor. Big man writes a screed, selectively choosing quotes from our conversation. Kind of like a petulant big brother who’d like to settle the score with the mean old lady who picked on his sweet little sister. Suffice to say, I’d love to get royalties for all the free content I gave them. And of course, I apologized publicly for the way I spoke to the young editor. It wasn’t fair or smart to offer something unsolicited, much less assume what she could handle. Particularly if it is a pr lady who tells the unvarnished truth to no clearly scoped professional end.

I think the weirdest part of the whole interchange, though, was how the big boy editor referred to me as sexist. I doubt he would have written a piece like that if the junior writer was an immature young man and I called him a kid. Or if his picture was at a kegger with his cleanest baseball hat, and I told him it didn’t help his credibility.

Don’t get me wrong, I made three basic mistakes – remember that everything is on the record, stay on message, and pay attention to cultural mores. The comments and posts were a dead giveaway for what was considered fair game. On the human side, I think my mistake was just as basic. Had I asked the writer what she had hoped to achieve with her post, the conversation might have gone differently. Might have.

Upon reading the posts, a friend said, “Ooh! Looks like you stepped on his little girl.” For her sake, I hope her editor stops being her big brother and starts being a mentor instead. And for mine, I’ll keep my advice to myself, and consider taking it now and then.

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Filed under criticism, everything is on the record, Feminism, pr, when pr ladies tell the truth

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