A longtime journalist wonders what, exactly, press officers do.
The mysterious creature that is the press officer
Imagine the guffaws if an estate agent appealed for sympathy because some of his more overpriced properties attracted no buyers or tenants. And what would be the natural response to a used-car dealer's bleatings about a lack of buyers for rusty old bangers? Since journalists figure even lower, by comparison, in public esteem, I realise only too well that no one will shed tears for a reporter who mopes about a few unreturned calls.
But since I am rather closer to the end of my career than its beginning, I feel entitled to share some genuine uncertainty about the role in society of the press officer. Lots of us have sons or daughters, or friends or acquaintances, who take media courses with a view to working, if not as journalists, in the field of press relations. But what will they do when they enter that field? Consider some examples that help explain why I consider the question worth asking.
Alastair Campbell, whose long service to Tony Blair brought him a reputation for bluster, spin and profanity, was a press officer who saw it as no part of his role to assist the press. I heard him say as much in a lecture in Paris. Campbell could only admire the human brick walls I recently came up against in France. Together, their real names make them sound like a firm of solicitors, though we shall call them Mme X and Mme Z, the press officers of two giant supermarket chains.
Readers of The National who saw my report on rising sales of halal foie gras in France will have noticed only passing reference to one of those chains and none to the other, even though both have stores where the delicacy is successfully sold. You may think the companies would have been delighted to co-operate in the preparation of a story, but I lost count of how many times I telephoned or e-mailed with simple requests for assistance. By the time the article appeared - thanks to the kindness of people in a Muslim quarter of Paris - Mme X and Mme Z had failed even to provide basic information, as promised, on the sales of these products.
Although I could mention plenty of instances of a similar manque de politesse having nothing to do with France, it does seem a peculiarly French trait to require verbal requests to be confirmed by fax or e-mail and then to ignore the communication altogether. So I am left with an innocent question, to which someone out there must have the answer. What is it that press officers do, and find so time-consuming, that they simply cannot bring themselves to deal meaningfully with members of the press?