As the saying goes ” PRs … can’t live with them….. can’t beat them to death with a brick ”
In our world of Press Photography the roles of PR and Press Officer have mutated into one and as such when I refer to PRs I include the latter species too. They are the front-line. They are the barrier between us photographers and the ‘talent’. They exist to mediate between said ‘talent’ and the demanding hordes of unwashed ‘snappers’. Heaven forbid that the unwashed should ever actually get to communicate with the ‘talent’ one on one. That would never do. Why ? Well, maybe because the ‘talent’ would realise that they didn’t actually need to pay for these minders at all.
There are two types of PR. There are good ones and there are dreadful ones. It only takes the shortest of exposure to categorise one when you meet them.
The good ones talk to you as an adult addressing a fellow adult. They defer to the idea that as a professional you understand the requirements of your job. They ask what you require and try their hardest to give you it on the basis that they’ve invited you to the event because they want the publicity for their subject. As a newspaper photographer my role is to get my photographs published in my newspaper. I know this seems like I’m stating the bloody obvious but sometimes you have to wonder whether the vast majority of PRs actually understand that fact.
A good PR knows I want to get my photos published. A good PR also wants me to get my photos published.
Nobody says they have to fawn over you. All they need to do is be receptive to ideas and if possible facilitate those ideas remembering that out of the two of us I am the expert. A good PR will learn very quickly what photographers need to get a publication and will tailor the photo-call to make this more likely. Some of the best PR companies actually involve a photographer in the development phase of the concept. Crazy I know but some actually realise that to organise a photo-op it might be useful to take advice from someone who actually photographs. Spooky.
I have the good fortune to deal with more than my fair share of good PRs. The people at Christies and Sotheby’s spring immediately to mind as do the people at Freuds that I’ve dealt with. One quite senior PR at Freuds once explained to me that he told newbies that the best thing they could do was to get the photographers onside, “get them to be your mate” was his exact phrase.
All seems to make sense does it not?
The photographer specialises in getting his/her picture published. The PR wants publicity for their event in the form of a picture published. That’s why they invite you and that’s why when you get there you come up with suggestions and often end up lying on your stomach on some filthy London street trying to get an eye catching image that will publish. When that image publishes, you the photographer are happy as are the PR and the PR’s boss. Everything is that simple.
I’d love to know how this simple teaching scenario falls apart between PR school and actual practice in the real world and I think I may have spotted the solution. The fact is there is no such thing as a PR school.
This is where the second type of PR raises their ugly often cheap-suited head.
The bad PR sees their role not as a facilitator but as a barrier.
When they lower themselves to invite you to an event they will greet you with (if you’re lucky) disdain or more likely disgust. They (despite their visual illiteracy) will tell you what ‘THE picture is’. ‘THE picture’ is the idea that four or more PRs with no knowledge of photography came up with in a meeting at Carluccios’ the night before the photo-call.
The bad PR will do their best to make you feel unwelcome. They will often refuse entry to the event until a set time, leaving you stood outside on the street like an unwanted bag of jumble.
When you realise that ‘THE picture’ is never going to publish in a month of Sundays and you try in your foolish professionalism to try and rescue the said photo-call they will either dismiss you or develop sudden complete deafness. The very worst ones will threaten to have you removed (basically for trying to help them) if you suggest trying something else that might give the photograph a fighting chance of publishing.
When you move to the even darker realm of Political party PR’s the bar lowers even further.
The bad Political PR knows everything better than you.
They know where you should stand. They know where you should sit or kneel at conference. They employ the dreaded white tape lines that must never be crossed on pain of death.
Their minions are constantly at your ear telling you to move. They are pulling you or pushing you or poking you at every turn. They are known to block photographers and have been seen on many occasions actually putting their hands over lenses. Watch the footage of Ed Miliband being egged in Walworth, almost the first reaction was to stop it being recorded not to stop more eggs raining in. As an aside, one of the PRs at that incident was trying to blame it all on a photographer. Apparently the ‘egger’ had been seen talking to one before the incident. I can well believe that. Strangely enough members of the public often ask the nearest person “what’s going on?” so what if that person has a camera it certainly does not implicate them in the incident.
This fantasy was used as an excuse at the conference in Brighton for the press office refusing to tell accredited photographers that Ed Miliband was going to stand on a table in a street and do a Q & A session with the public (more like carefully picked party members and SOME public) as a curtain raiser .
The bad Political PR will lie to your face. When you ask if there is any chance of a facility to do the Leader writing his speech he will say “no that’s not happening” … then an hour later the pictures miraculously appear.
I guess it’s all about control and trust. They don’t trust us (well most of us) because they can’t control us (well most of us). But it’s all based on paranoia. They’ve seen Malcolm in The Thick of It and they think that’s the way to act. They’ve lost sight of the basic lesson. They want publicity and we can provide it. And that’s the nub of the problem in this particular area. The thing is Political PRs don’t just want publicity. They want their own idea of publicity. But that is by definition propaganda not publicity and we aren’t there to help them with propaganda. PR and Journalism are two different things. Publicising a celebrity’s new book to fill some space in the paper is one thing but covering politics is different that is journalism. The best political photographs of the last two decades, whilst I’ve been working for The Telegraph, were taken by my colleague Martin Argles of The Guardian. They were behind the scenes from the last election and culminated in a series from inside Downing Street when Gordon and his team finally realised their time was up.
Classic reportage, journalism, and a far cry from stunted up photographs of Ed or Dave ‘caught’ laughing with their family. There was one stage when photographers were told they couldn’t use flash with Dave because it ruined the effect of spontaneity. Spontaneity at an orchestrated event? How we laughed at that one.
So where does it all go wrong. At what point in PR school do the bad ones drop out. Do they do a different syllabus to the good ones ? Is it a different examining board?
Oh I forgot they don’t have a school do they.
So how does it happen. Who in their infinite wisdom tells the bad PRs that their way of operating is acceptable? It’s a mystery. We try again and again to tell them the error of their ways but it’s too late by the time we meet them. By the time they meet us they are less likely to listen to reason than a Cyberman.
I may have been in this job since before some of them started school but the bad PRs are still the experts.
And one last thing on this subject . One last cast iron indicator of what type of PR you are dealing with. The bad PR will call you a snapper.
Here are a few pix I’ve taken over the last month or two. Some of them with the help of good PRs and some despite the efforts of the bad ones. Some without the influence of either … astonishingly the world does keep on revolving without either kind.
This is David Cameron trying to sneak out the back of Downing Street on his way to Chequers. This was the Friday after he’d been humiliated in the House of Commons over his attempt to initiate attacks on Syria over alleged chemical weapons use. His press officers had spent ages getting the cars at the back to move back and forth to make sure nobody could see him leaving. Peter Macdiarmid had got him on a long lens walking to the car despite their efforts. I got him in it. It was a bit quick. It’s nice when you beat them. Bad PRs.
This is the set (excuse the indulgence of converting to black and white) from my assignment to Paris to show ‘Roma” gypsies begging and in some cases robbing tourists in the French capital. The worry is that they will all move to the UK. None we spoke to were in the least bit interested in swapping Paris for Croydon. No PRs.
Craig Revel Horwood from Strictly Come Dancing, a thoroughly nice fella with an equally nice PR. There had been an administrative cock up and we had turned up two hours late for the shoot. No histrionics they just went for lunch and met me in a nearby pub.
Very good PR.
Labour party conference. I think I’ve said enough about that. Only need to add that Damien McBride turned up to rain on their parade. BBC Newsnight had an exclusive with him so they tried to keep him under wraps. The chap driving the car is a Newsnight cameraman. We had the ridiculous situation where the car was surrounded but the driver being one of us and not wanting a death on his hands drove out of the hotel as slowly as possible. My mate Alan Davidson was at one point prostrate on the bonnet, feet off the ground shooting through the windscreen. Bad PRs.
And a couple where the PRs left me alone …Not sure which category this one comes into. This is Mr Bill Marriott, the founder and executive chairman of the Marriott hotel chain. A very nice chap with a fearsome american PR lady. I actually liked her a lot and she left me alone to take pix where I wanted in the penthouse apartment of one of his hotels in London. She only lost points for asking me to stop taking pix during the interview. Fair enough if I’d been hosing it down with lights popping every second but I was shooting on the long end of my 70-200 on available light. He barely noticed I was there but she still felt the need to stop me. PR of both sorts.This was the “Beats Half Marathon” in Greenwich park. The PRs for this were some of the nicest I’ve met for quite a long time. They provided bacon rolls and drinks and were totally organised. I was taken to the start where the “talent” would be brought to be photographed starting the race. Only problem was that nobody had told the “talent” about this and they never turned up. They were very apologetic and pointed out the vantage point for the picture below. It never published but 10 out of 10 for effort. Good PRs.