The problem with PR

I’ve been writing about fashion for over 20 years and, for the last five, been announcing ad nauseam that I’m almost definitely giving up (with a typically dramatic flourish on each occasion). Not because of the vampiric effect that the conglomerates have had on creativity and innovation – although that can’t be overlooked – but because being a journalist means I have to rely on the fashion industry equivalent of the aged Epson printer beneath my desk. It’s something that has one job to do, but has to be coaxed into doing it, and sometimes simply can’t be bothered: PR.

“Sorry, I thought the watch would be a great fit for your story on monogramming because it’s black and white”

There are, of course, agency owners who will always have my ear because I trust them and they know infinitely more than I ever will, and there are account heads who will reply to an email in a heartbeat to tell me when to expect an interview, collection notes, prices et al for a story, while also suggesting five other angles I hadn’t even considered. But there are times when the world of fashion PR seems populated largely by the disinterested and uninformed, drawn to the industry by launch parties, samples and glamour by association. Emails are replied to at a glacial pace; quotes cut and pasted automaton-style from press releases are offered as original interview material. Idiocy and attitude abounds: “What’s the hard deadline?” (As if there was a soft one.) “Maybe I could I send over a few samples… to sweeten the deal?” (From someone I’ve never heard from before, while attempting to place a story with all the finesse of a gypsy touting lucky heather). And my all-time favourite: “Sorry, I thought the watch would be a great fit for your story on monogramming because it’s black and white.”

Even something as simple as the details of what’s on the shop floor right now takes an age to be confirmed. “We’re still looking into that, sorry,” was the reply to my fifth email on a story recently about autumn prices. Two weeks after my first request, I went to the designer’s London store and detailed everything I needed with my iPhone. A week after I filed my copy, the designer’s PR emailed me the same prices.

Generally, I give myself six weeks to research any given piece. Where I can, I circumnavigate PR entirely

A significant problem is the increasing distance between designer and PR, particularly at the global agencies with myriad accounts. Trying to get the perspective of a creative director at a huge brand on any given topic is far more difficult than speaking to an independent. If I want to know what Rick Owens thinks about, say, Brutalism or Japanese asymmetry, I know he’s likely to call or email me directly (all in uppercase as is the Owens house-style – every aspect of communication is CONSIDERED). There’s no one above him who needs to sign it off. Tellingly, Owens worked without any out-of-house PR for the longest time. The turnaround from question to answer can be immediate. This isn’t typical. Generally, I give myself six weeks to research any given piece. Where I can, I circumnavigate PR entirely.

Brands need to value, encourage, educate and engage their PRs, beyond merely entrusting them with next season’s collection to book out for shoots, or setting them, pitbull-style, on the rare journalist or editor who dares offer criticism. And as for the aggressive posturing of the “big name” PR, a soi-disant mix of Diana Vreeland and Lucrezia Borgia but with more extravagant nail art, that whole act really isn’t constructive for anyone. There are brands I pointedly avoid covering because their PR representatives are self-regarding Gorgons who relish being seen as “fierce”, both by journalists and their usually short-suffering staff.

PRs can be lazy, just as journalists can be lazy. Many PRs operate a scattergun approach. They bombard everyone that the latest Fashion Monitor details as in-house with the most general of releases, ignoring the ever growing, influential freelance corps. I told the London-based PR of one of the most credible big Italian brands that, while they had been reactive with me for years, I had never received any news from them, ever. They explained that they were always in touch with my various editors, to which I pointed out that those editors weren’t in the business of disseminating information to the writers who provide them with the bulk of their copy. They aren’t there for that. Now I get daily emails from them. Usually it’s a Daily Mail-ready picture of Pixie Lott or similar carrying one of their bags, none of it relevant to a serious analysis of fashion. But it sums up the industry in many respects.

It doesn’t have to be like this. A PR’s role can be fluid and adventurous. Look at someone like Trino Verkade, who elevated PR into something else entirely at McQueen, and is now Thom Browne’s right hand for business development. Verkade has always been so much more than a cheerleader for her brand.

The role of the PR should be to inspire and attract the eye. They should be the oil that keeps the engine running. Crucially, the point of PR should be to supersede advertising, for a fraction of the cost. They should be the sommeliers of fashion and the true tastemakers.

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2 Responses to “The problem with PR”

  1. There are always people in our industry that don’t get it, luckily there are enough who do to make it work.

  2. It’s pretty much the same in beauty PR. I’ve been in the industry for nearly 25 years now and boy, have things changed in the way PR operates. There are a few old-skool types who know how to do things properly but then a huge swathe of young, disinterested types for whom PR is more vacation than vocation. Only the other day I contacted a PR to see if I could get a quote from one of their clients for a piece I was writing about fragrance. No problem, they told me. They’d be happy to help, they told me. Leave it with them, they told me. And then they simply never got back to me. Even when I hassled them.
    Now remember, I approached THEM about this so you would think they’d bite my hand off. I mean, I just offered to give them some free press. Does their client know I wonder? Do they care? Then there are the ones who take you out to lunch to introduce a new product to you and then read off the press release to fill you in on what it actually is – like it’s the first time they’ve ever seen it.
    My personal bete noir are attachments sent without so much as a “to whom it may concern”. Anyway, I could go on and on but won’t. I’ve discussed this so many times with industry types my age and we just end up feeling desperately old and curmudgeonly and concluding that manners, experience and professionalism are simply obsolete in the X-Factor age. I’m glad you wrote this piece, though, because it finally says what so many of us have been thinking. The real shame, as you point out, is that it really doesn’t have to be that way…

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