I wasn’t even in the office when it happened. I came back from an event, stepped off the elevator and saw that everyone had left their desks. I assumed there had been a fire alarm until I heard a voice down the hall. I followed it until I found, just outside Paul Plesman’s office, our entire staff
gathered around André Préfontaine, as he made the official announcement that Transcontinental Media was acquiring our company. My first thought: Wait until the PR people get a load of this.
That was five years ago, but it was in some ways the beginning of a shift in my thinking about how we communicate information about this firm to the outside world. I was a staff writer then, and after getting over the initial euphoria of actually being employed as a journalist, I slowly realized I had entered a world of gossip in which my company was the center of attention. Not only would I be asked in general terms how working at Plesman was going when I attended industry events, PR people would have what appeared to be a list of detailed questions about the health of our titles, the attitudes of our editors and our staffing situation.
At a party some six months after I started, I met a journalist at Rogers Media who said she had once worked at our firm. “”Everybody starts at Plesman,”” a PR person chimed in, noting that she had enjoyed a stint there, too. So did a lot of other media relations professionals, I later learned. While many of these people went on to occupy fairly senior positions at firms like H&K, Cohn & Wolfe and elsewhere, they certainly didn’t leave their nose for news behind. When they called me, they would preface their pitch with small talk about colleagues of mine who had recently quit, or changes in policies that had other colleagues grumbling. Yes, it sometimes seemed weird that they knew more about the benefits plan here than I did, but I had no urge to dig more deeply into the history of their firms. I just didn’t care.
There were some members of our staff who not only didn’t mind the attention, but savoured it. Some seemed to use PR firms as an extended support group, griping about office politics to people pitching Microsoft case studies because everyone else around here was tired of listening to them. They obviously didn’t realize that some PR professionals saw their woes as merely an opportunity for building up a more personal relationship. I tended to stay vague, which sometimes made me feel guilty because I thought I might have come off sounding rude. If everyone else was ready to dish, why was I holding back?
Once we became part of Transcon, I realized I needed to change my approach. We were starting to deal with some pretty major changes here, as anyone going through an acquisition does. The frequency of our publications were changing. People were losing their jobs. Naturally, PR firms were more abuzz than ever before, but I was determined I would give them nothing to talk about. At parties and press conferences, my answered to the most pointed questions were almost always the same: We were looking forward to the new opportunities presented to us by being part of a larger firm. Our editorial staff was working harder to be more collaborate between publications. We were confident that we would survive the IT market downturn.
All these things turned out to be true, even if they felt like spin at the time. But they made me realize that sometimes media training, even if you have to train yourself, isn’t just about protecting your brand as it is your sanity.
Shane Schick is the editor of IT Business Pipeline