Here's a puzzle - and to help you solve it, a clue. The Bottom Line is a conversation show where top chief executives and entrepreneurs have a lively debate about business topics with Evan Davis. Now, can you spot the odd-one-out in the following list?
- A hypnotist
- A vegetarian
- An expert on eco-friendly Christmas decorations
- The chief executive of the world's largest oil company
The answer is 4 - the only one not to have been proposed (so far) as a contributor by their public relations agency.
Here's some more potential contributors that PRs have suggested: an expert on wine-tasting; a singer-songwriter, who'd also like to perform on the show; a medical expert on 'summer madness'; a documentary film director; a psychologist who can talk about playgrounds; a diet expert; a band who've released their third single; a dentist... There are plenty more examples.
Might one end up thinking that the PR industry is full of people who are out of touch with their counterparts in the media? Well you might, if you saw some of the emails I get. Actually, the best PRs suggest good contributors we might not know about; come up with exciting topics; and help us to remain in touch with important business trends. We're grateful for their help - and their patience with our demands.
Most of the contributors who appear on the show are there because we have made the request. With some high-profile guests, we have to be very persistent to convince them to take part - and good PR people can help us here. The idea of appearing on a programme that's broadcast in the UK and around the world on Radio and TV can be daunting to some contributors, though most are excited by the idea of such a huge audience.
But a few PRs spell trouble. Some will guard access to the chief executive they're looking after a bit too fiercely. On one occasion when we weren't able to brief the contributor properly beforehand, he ended up being a hundred miles away at the time of recording - leaving us half an hour to find a replacement guest from scratch. Another chief executive obviously thought there was safety in numbers, because he had three different PR firms advising him (they all demanded separate briefings).
Then there are the huge number of unsolicited submissions we receive, only a very few of which are suitable enough for us to follow up. Some PRs seem to have no idea that the programme is about business, rather than, say, rock music or holidays. Even when they do have a vague grasp of the show's content, they often pitch almost anyone with a business background however remote, especially if there's some event coming up.
These PRs are often the same ones who send lots and lots of emails...the vast majority of which are irrelevant (a friend has christened these 'spram'). For those PRs who haven't yet grasped the basics of effective electronic communication, this advice from a mid-1990s guide to 'netiquette' might help: "messages... should be brief and to the point... unsolicited advertising which is completely off-topic will most certainly guarantee that you get a lot of hate mail."
Of course I am not alone; many journalists have to grapple with far more calls and emails than I do. Chris Anderson, Editor in Chief of Wired magazine, wrote a famous blog post on the subject, where he explained he would ban PR people who sent him inappropriate emails because there were just too many.
The other side of the coin is that it can be tough to reach the right person in a large media organisation like the BBC - and we do try to help 'lost' PRs. But there will always be some who will just grab a media contacts list and email everyone on it, not worrying if the guest or story is appropriate, because it's the easiest thing to do.
So our advice to PRs is, do as Chris Anderson suggests - find out what a journalist is interested in before contacting them. It isn't that difficult - and it might save some money. For example, if a PR listened to or watched an edition of the show before sending in promotional CDs, DVDs and books (and we get a surprising number of these) he or she might discover that we don't play music or movie clips, and we almost never review books.
Managing relations between large organisations and the public is not an easy task. In this week's programme we'll hear how top PR practitioners Julia Hobsbawm and Lord Tim Bell go about it.
Neil Koenig is series producer of The Bottom Line
- The Bottom Line, uniquely, is broadcast on BBC radio and television: on Thursdays and Saturdays on Radio 4, and on World Service Radio and the BBC News and World News TV Channels. The next programme is on Radio 4 tomorrow at 2030 (repeated at 1730 on Saturday).
- The picture, which shows a shelf of Spam in a Korean shop, is by Mark DeMaio. Used under licence.