I've worked with public relations people often enough. When I was a younger freelancer, I'd work off of pitches from PR friends connecting me to people doing some sort of Good or Interesting thing in the world, maybe giving me one or two pieces for my post-grad start.
That kind of relationship segued into asking PR people at nonprofits (different! in my opinion) to connect me with immigration policy experts and undocumented people and people with DACA and other varying immigration authorizations.
My most shameful assignment handed to me was from a PR rep at a dating app that will remain unnamed. I wrote a kind of extremely personal piece about growing up in an interracial family and learning how to navigate dating white people and talk about race as a teenager. I remember the comment from the PR person afterwards:
"Thank you so much! The piece is fantastic and the ****** team is thrilled."
I am still embarrassed about this! I used a relatively good essay about my identity to satisfy capitalism's insatiable appetite — and this was when we were no longer in the personal essay era of turning trauma into clicks. I haven't written a story based on another PR cold pitch since then, especially pitches specific to the world of "women's media."
That is not to say that what they do can't be valuable or necessary — people been extremely helpful for a myriad of other stories that aren't just a ploy to "please write about this thing I've been hired to promote." More often than not, though, it is not for me, and not journalism. (I apologize to all of my PR and marketing friends — it is nothing personal, and I love you as people!)
And christ, have PR people been especially insufferable during the coronavirus pandemic.
They are doing what they do best, pushing their product far and wide to anyone who will bite, but with far less tact than usual. Here is a random, incomplete and partially-redacted smattering of the PR emails that have hit my inbox over the past month:
In case you wanted to know how we think people are going to stop using their money!
In case you wanted to know how I promote mental health on my Instagram!
In case you wanted to know how our jeweler is helping people sell their jewels because they've lost their jobs!
In case you wanted to know how our product can stop you from losing money!
In case you wanted to know our vague medical findings on melatonin!
In case you wanted to learn about our wittily-named fashion brand! (Ok, ok! This concept is better than most. I digress...)
In case you wanted our expert and former Bush administration alum to talk about China and Russia!
Please, PR friends far and wide, stop trying to make your oddly-shaped peg of a client fit into the media hole that is COVID-19. I don't care to hear about the people or products that have vague usefulness during the pandemic. I know we all need to eat, and for you that means emailing journalists about products and people that otherwise matter outside of a time of crisis, but do not kid yourself. You are not emailing about life-saving information about the coronavirus, and it is unhelpful to pretend that you are.
I won't make you question your integrity, or your role in the churn-and-burn content machine, because we are all to blame for this media hellscape. No, I just beg of you: Unless you're emailing me about striking workers, people in ICE detention, or other people caught in the crosshairs of the pandemic who are trying to speak out against their oppression, do not contact me!
Image: aehdeschaine/Flickr Creative Commons