On deadline, a journalist asks: "Could you tell me the name of your CEO, please?" The fashion PR replies: "Sorry?" Journalist: "Your CEO, your chief executive, can I check that it's still XX?" Fashion PR: "I don't know what you mean. We sell clothes. Is there anything else?" Clunk.
This was a real phone conversation with the PR for a British publicly listed fashion retail company. Serious in all things financial and corporate, when it came to hiring its fashion PR, looking cute in the brand's jeans came a long way above being able to communicate about the business on a basic level, or even having manners.
No, this isn't another rant from a journalist about how rubbish PRs are. It isn't possible for us to do our jobs without them, just as it isn't possible for them to do theirs without us, whether either of us would like to admit it or not. During my 13 years in the fashion business, a PR has saved my bacon by getting out of bed at 3am to rush clothes to my door for a last minute photo-shoot, and another has organised a badly needed quote at a moment's notice - while she was on holiday. Some of them also prove that beauty and brains don't have to be mutually exclusive talents in a business that often seems to value the former above the latter.
What's alarming is the way in which major fashion companies approach the recruitment of fashion PRs - effectively the front line of communication with their customer base. The importance of the fashion PR is arguably increasing with the rise of celebrity-style endorsement and the power that that brings to the industry. Now, every magazine, newspaper and colour supplement has a hefty dose of fashion - after all, it's great entertainment.
The outlets available for fashion brands to generate free publicity are increasing, not decreasing, yet many major brands still think that hiring a small army of poorly paid PR novices or a fashion babe who doesn't understand that "cool" and "commerce" need to coexist is a tick in the box for marketing. It's not - it's simply damaging. And it's damage that can last a long time. If a journalist has one bad run-in with a PR, the disinclination to call that company above one of the many others on offer can last for a long time.
For every good agency such as Talk, Modus or Bryan Morel, and professional in-house teams such as those at Arcadia and Burberry, there is another which at best isn't helpful to us and at worst is culpable for a brand's lack of credits, and, therefore, sales.
Here is a little test for CEOs: ask your fashion PR team into your office. If they cannot talk for five minutes about you, your company, your product or why it's relevant to your audience, then they will have no chance of talking to a journalist. Listen to how your carefully crafted branding and communications strategy that has taken months, even years, to formulate is murdered in the mouths of your babes. As one fashion PR explained to me: "Many CEOs would be horrified to hear what goes on in the name of their brand."
One of the major problems is that companies are still unable to quantify the value of a product being shown in a magazine or a newspaper. CEOs are never as cavalier with the PR functions that affect their own jobs more directly. CEOs go through the financial PR process with a fine-tooth comb, ensuring that every aspect of their own image is presented in the best and most positive way. Cost of the service is never an issue if you deliver the goods. It's a shame that they don't apply the same rigorous attention to the front line of fashion PR.
"It makes me very cross," says Anita Borzyszkowska, Gap's European PR director. "To give people an informed point of view you have to have a holistic understanding of the way the business operates. If you can only talk about the colour of the jumpers you're only giving people half the story. This isn't rocket science. This is just a service and all you have to be is knowledgeable, straightforward and honest and have a bit of dignity. The way I present myself is the way I represent the company."
The ones who get it right understand that the devil is in the detail and some brands simply haven't got a handle on this. As the fashion director at InStyle magazine for the past three years, I have some influence in the selection of products that will reach nearly 200,000 readers, yet I'm still waiting for some, surprisingly big, fashion and accessories companies to return my calls and those of InStyle's team.
That's fine by me, though, because we can concentrate on their competitors that will, as will the smaller, hungry, brands that really have a passion for their business. Few marketing directors would allow their media-buying agencies to operate in this way.
The job of dealing with the huge range of fashion journalists, and our (sometimes terrifying or unreasonable) temperaments and demands, requires the skills of a diplomat. It also calls for masterly organisation and a true appreciation of how a mention in a magazine can mean the difference between generating high sales or no sales.
It's so simple, really. Hand your front line over to the experts because they are out there.
The writer is fashion director of 'InStyle' magazineReuse content