There are journalists who complain about the relentless rhythm of fashion weeks. I can see the point, but then journalists reporting from war zones usually don’t complain about the “relentless rhythm” of bombs falling on their heads, do they? In fact, reporting about fashion can be as hard as reporting from a war zone (blood included...), yet the worst thing about fashion weeks and about fashion in general is not the unstoppable pace of this industry, but the uselessness of some people who actually work in this industry, namely the PR agents and press officers.
Despite finding some genuinely helpful people among this sad category of human beings, I have also had some of the most nightmarish experiences ever recorded in my life thanks to a bunch of hopeless PR agents. By now if you work as a PR and you had some kind of contact with me, you will probably be wondering if I’m referring to you. I had the worst experiences with Italian PR agencies, so this statement might already exclude you from my list of most hated people or might instantly turn you into my worst enemy.
I sometimes think I should be saving some of the most entertaining stories about my experiences with PR agencies and press offices for a book, but, not having the time at the moment to write a long tome, I think I will briefly summarise some of the best stories here.
I first learnt about the schizoid way in which many Italian PR agencies work at a music festival in Arezzo a long long time ago. Among the bands invited to play that year there were also Sonic Youth. I remember there was a huge queue of journalists outside their dressing room. All of them wanted to speak to the band, but we were all told by the random PR woman who was keeping guard in front of the dressing room door that no interviews had been planned yet. Then two young guys with an American accent who claimed they wrote for a fanzine went to speak to the PR, told them they were American and they were immediately admitted to the “sancta sanctorum” without any problems. I never understood why the PR took that decision in that specific case, but I learnt something very important then: many people working in public relationships do not know what they are doing.
As the years passed I kept on becoming more and more suspicious about PR people: last year I asked the Italian PR agency that dealt with Diego Dolcini’s sandals for Scholl if we could have some images for a news piece we were doing about the sandals on Zoot Magazine. I was told to send a magazine so that Scholl could see it and decide if it was OK to be featured in it. I was honestly tempted to tell the PR in question that, given the fact that Scholl was still perceived all over the world as a company producing orthopedic shoes, even a mere 50 words hastily written on Dolcini’s sandals on the crappest fashion magazine on the planet wouldn’t have damaged the company. I didn’t because I don’t have the time nor the free magazines to waste on clueless people.
Then there were countless Italian PR agencies who were asked to provide images of catwalks for fashion weeks round ups or for specific articles on the history of fashion and 1) never replied; 2) replied but never sent the images; 3) sent low-resolution images four weeks after the deadline. This sort of behaviour always left me a bit puzzled because I never understood if my language was so incomprehensible they didn’t get what I was asking for or if the people who read my emails/faxes were paid so well that they spent all their money on excessive amounts of drugs that basically fried their brain. The doubts, as usual, remain.
And what about that time an Italian guy working for a British company “organised” for me a visit to the headquarters (now turned into a museum) of a once famous Italian sportswear company (now owned by a British group) and after arriving at the meeting place I discovered no formal visit or interviews had actually been arranged?
The most annoying thing PR agencies ever did to me, though, was denying an interview with a designer telling me he/she was too busy to speak with the press, only to contact me again a few months after trying to organise an interview with the same designer who was suddenly available (or rather in desperate need of publicity). I’m a cynical, nasty and extremely sadistic person and when this happens I either say I’m too busy or send them their first reply to my first email asking them how come that the genius is now suddenly available and happy to have a chat with a nobody like me.
Yes, because many PR agencies/press offices do not take you into consideration unless you are famous enough, i.e. you don’t write for a magazine they know. This can be rather silly considering fashion is a bit like a dangerous jungle when it comes to weeklies, monthlies, online publications and blogs. Journalists writing for the most important publications will just tell you that once you build enough credibility, people will start noticing you. I agree, but sometimes to illustrate my credibility I need to interview a designer and this can usually be arranged only via a PR.
The recent Pitti Immagine Uomo and Milan menswear catwalks also proved the uselessness of Italian press offices and PR agencies. After countless phone calls a PR organised a phone interview with the head of a distribution company presenting two of the brands he worked with at a Milan tradeshow. Asked how he had started his career and managed to build up such a successful company the interviewee complained: “It would take me at least 15 minutes to go through this answer, can’t you do the interview with my PR agent?” Utterly annoying answer, I thought, yet the sheepish PR agreed to answer my questions in her boss's place via email that same night. Obviously she didn’t, but she also tried to arrange another email interview with a Japanese client that, guess what?, never happened.
But the examples can go on and on: asked to provide images or a video of the Thom Browne’s Autumn/Winter 2009-10 presentation, the Pitti Immagine Uomo press office preferred not to answer me, maybe they were scared that I would have written something nasty about one of the few interesting events that happened at Pitti this year? Who knows.
A few months ago Italian publishing house Salani Editore released a book entitled Alla corte di re moda (Literally “At the court of King Fashion”) by two Italian fashion journalists. According to the book subtitles, the volume should have revealed scandalous truths about the fashion industry, about designers, catwalks and the fashion media. Yet, unfortunately, it doesn’t really contain anything shocking or that might truly hurt anybody.
The book was indeed put together by copying from the Internet a few basic and banal facts about the most famous fashion journalists or editors working for the most important magazines, dailies or television channels, and assembling these bits and pieces with random interviews done by the authors. Isn’t it a bit redundant writing about Anna Wintour and her legendary “Devil Wears Prada” fame, "beautiful" Carine Roitfeld, "knowledgeable" Suzy Menkes, "nice" Hilary Alexander and "allegedly corrupted" Franca Sozzani? I found annoying the way the authors complain about how hard it can be reporting about fashion weeks and catwalks (did you think the job was all about going to parties and having fun?) and the way they complain about the fact that in Italy many fashion critics do not seem to have the honesty and sincerity of British journalists. Amazingly there's no mention of messy PR or press officers in the book, but, obviously, once you say something nasty about a specific PR or press officer you lose the chance to interview the clients they represent. In a nutshell, it's better to shut up. So much for journalistic integrity.
What Italy needs at the moment is not a book about what Anna Wintour eats to remain as thin as a rake, but some integrity from its fashion critics and a massive overdose of professionalism from PR agents and press officers.
Given my previous experiences, I guess it will take ages before it happens. But I’m still (relatively) young, so I will sit and patiently wait. Who knows, in the process, I might even get the answers to the questions I sent many weeks ago to that elusive PR representing a supposedly hip Japanese brand.
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