June 06, 2012
Be it a newspaper or news channel newsroom, in this particular scenario the reaction is always the same: "Not another bloody press release" or "Bhain---d!! Yeh kahan say ah tapka (Where the f--- did this come from)?!!”
Yes, those press releases are the bane of our lives. But there is only so much we journalists can do with them and those that bring them or send them.
Admitted, press releases are a source of information and sometimes even come in handy, but mostly they serve only as a head’s up to an event one might not have been aware of or as referral material to bolster one’s report or story. At least that’s the way press releases are mostly utilized in Pakistan and the Gulf.
Press releases fall into three categories – “Must take”, “Put it somewhere”, and “Throw it in the waste basket”. Most of the time, it’s the latter but that does not mean we discount the first two types.
Must take: This category cannot and should not be ignored if one knows what’s good for them. Mostly hand-delivered, usually by someone in a position of responsibility, such a press release arrives via the office of the editor or the director programs with the instruction that, come what may, it has to be accommodated. “Bhai iss ka kucch karo warna problem ho jaey gi.” (Do something about it or there could be problems).
Such press releases usually originate from people the editor or top management of the newspaper or channel consider important such as the military, politicians, ministries, donor agencies, Western and Arab embassies.
One cannot say no to the management/ownership. Certainly the military has to be obliged. Ministries, politicians, donor agencies and embassies have to be accommodated otherwise they will not send invitations to their much sought after parties and receptions. Nobody wants to miss those.
Also, such press releases are barely if ever edited. A headline is given and they are carried in their entirety. Well, almost always.
“Must take press releases are monetarily and otherwise beneficial to those who tow the line. Those who do are taken good care of, rewarded. The message is clear to those that can comprehend: “You’re no Serpico, so try not to be difficult or question the rationale behind the orders that come with such press releases. Leave your integrity and uprightness at home if you want to stay in the job. Fall in line. Don’t make waves.”
One of the quickest ways to lose your job is not acting seriously upon the orders coming with the ‘must take’ press releases. Just try not to and see what happens.
Picture this: Just when the page is finished, proof read and ready to go, the news editor or night editor comes along and orders you to accommodate the press release in his hand. You complain and grumble, you argue, groan and moan… but he’s not having any of it. “Laga do (accommodate it),” he tells you brusquely and marches off without even a backwards glance. He’s already washed his hands off it. Now it’s your responsibility.
The layout guy is not happy and you are not happy. It’s been a long, tiring day and you had wanted to get home a little early just this once. But now, you have to get rid of a good story, time is being wasted… but you do what has to be done. So you inhale deep and long, abuse loudly or under your breath in accordance with your persona, and get the bloody thing on to the page.
No offense, nothing personal. It’s just the nature of the beast.
There are five minutes to go to the next news bulletin and the director programs comes along and says you have to act fast. He has this official looking press release in his hand and he wants you to script it and find appropriate footage, voice it, get it edited and in the news bulletin within that limited time. What do you do?
You don’t think; you act. You are superman. You get it done. Your job is safe.
Who said press releases were harmless, useless kachhra not worth two kowries? Never underestimate the power of the ‘must take’ press release. It could and will cost you your job if you chose to ignore it.
Put it somewhere: This is a much more interesting category. There are only three reasons for accommodating this type of press release: It’s genuinely good and worthwhile; you or someone on the desk has an agenda that fits in with its content; or you are just plain desperate and have nothing else to fill in that space or time on your page or bulletin.
Sometimes, just sometimes, a press release comes along that is so good that you cannot but resist making use of it. This particular press release is well written, it is informative, has a logical and easy flow, a start, middle and an end. Best of all, it’s interesting and would be something the reader would find worthwhile.
You make place for it yourself or you tell the respective sub, producer or AP to ‘put it somewhere.’ Although, not compulsory or absolutely essential, this press release is carried. You are happy you did so. You made place for it.
I have found UN, World Economic Forum and certain donor agencies to generate some of the best, most relevant press releases even though they are often clichéd and ‘official’. Who says a press release should read like an office document? But that is just the way press releases are projected to be. Anything else is not acceptable… at least not to the PR and outreach department of various organizations that send them.
Good cannot be kept out, no matter what. So, there is always a possibility that such a press release will be ‘put somewhere’.
On the other hand certain press releases do not warrant their existence on any page of a newspaper but somehow still manage to do so.
This happens only when you, yourself are interested in the content or have some friends or colleagues who have begged you to ‘put it somewhere’. Personal agendas assure such press releases don’t get thrown in the waste basket where they actually belong.
The roots of corruption run deep, so it’s no surprise then that some of those sources that generate this category of press release have honed in on that weak or rather ‘willing’ link in the newsroom, that is not adverse to lining his pockets, and position him to get the work done or....
This is the guy you may not like, but he will come cringing and begging for that press release to be accommodated and you do so, for no other reason than his being a colleague. But you also butcher the press release to less than half its length or time and position it somewhere on the page or bulletin where it’s barely noticed.
One way or the other, mission achieved. He knew you were going to do that anyway and was prepared. Unwittingly you became part of an agenda you never really knew about. It could come back to bite your where it’s uncomfortable.
Lastly, there are days when you are desperately short of matter and there are still huge holes on that page. Your bulletin is short by two minutes and you don’t know what to do. That is when you pull out the waste basket and begin rummaging through stuff you had discarded earlier in the day i.e. if the office boy has not already cleaned the basket of its contents.
You find what you were looking for, quickly reword the contents, add stuff, edit content and make it your own story. You get it processed and you tell the layout guy to ‘put it somewhere’ or you tell the AP to get it voiced and to find footage from the archives. Phew!!
Throw it in the wastebasket: Yup, this is where most press releases end up in the newsroom. They are crumpled into tight little balls and used to play ‘basketball’. It’s all about hand-eye coordination!!
For all practical purposes, you believe, it’s garbage and belongs in the bin. Most of it is. But some is not.
It’s only when you are not in the business or on the other side of the fence that you actually become aware of the time spent composing and writing a press releases. It’s not easy.
Indeed, it takes time and effort. There is a format to follow, jargon to get a grip on, details that must be included, stats, numbers, personalities, activities, history, facts, projection, soft and hard images, focus and impact. It’s tough. Spare a thought.
So next time a press release comes your way, please don’t dismiss it just like that. Maybe you’ll be able retrieve something worthwhile and then again, maybe not.
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