Freebies for obliging hacks –but you had better oblige

BY Lalitha Sridhar| IN Media Practice | 14/06/2003
An interviewee I once thought a possible friend was completely put off when I returned the lovely designer dupatta she couriered to me.

Lalitha Sridhar

A girl living in a working woman’s hostel was very envious of her roommate - a reporter for a daily in Mumbai, covering the ‘product launch’ beat. This enviable young lady’s room was full of ‘gifts’ - everything from silver spoons, boxes of dryfruits and expensive pens to nice cutlery, pedigree vouchers and jute carpets. Why, if a bread company was introducing a new variant of ‘dabal roti’, she didn’t go home with a packet of `whole-wheat dough baked to perfection’, she unwrapped fine crystal instead.

At the press meet to announce the successful closure of the maiden public issue of a blue chip company, premium Titan watches were given away with the folders of press material. A soft request elicited a bunch of visiting cards from the journos who ‘earned’ much in that short ‘dropping by’. As employees looked on, most journalists did not bother to stay for the formal event or speeches - just pocketed the literature and, of course, the timepiece, before leaving with unseemly haste. Later, the management thought it reasonable to bestow employees - who had slogged literally night and day on the said event - with the same reward.

‘Writing about automobiles can be very, very lucrative,’ says a seasoned senior professional who has earned his stripes by reporting on more than a few, ‘It can be a powerful place to be. A new motorcycle can be made or broken by a review or two. I have known journalists who are invited with air tickets and five-star stays to Pune, for example, just to smoothen the road a bit."

In one particular woman’s magazine the staff team goes on junkets by turns - returning to cover exotic destinations they couldn’t have earned on their 10-15,000 rupees a month/6 days a week salaries. It’s not surprising that there is a suspicious rash of glowing reportage on, particularly, Hongkong, Malaysia, Singapore and the Dubai Shopfest, more along the lines of annual pilgrimages, spread out over an innocent range of bylines. No small print mentions what the writer was doing there and on whose account. I am not the only one who has been caught wondering aloud how this country’s leading freelance travel writers manage to cover everything from the Great Wall of China to the swankiest techno hotel in Singapore on what they must be earning under normal circumstances (between 500 to 1000 rupees per article).

The PR person of a star hotel in my city recently hollered down the phone for my lapse in not mentioning her luxury facility, in an article on a celebrity who stayed with them on his trip this way. The ‘lead’ had come from her (as I later found out, I had been assigned by the edit desk) and this is the gist of her tirade, "Why would I call your paper if you have no intention of mentioning our hotel? See how the reporter from x wove it so beautifully into the story - that so and so stepped out of the lift of such and such hotel. Come on, that’s all we are asking for. I am not saying you have to insert an advertisement but for all the effort we put in, all we want is at least a peripheral mention. What’s the point in our paying for their (the celebs) rooms and dining, in doing all this running around and setting up appointments for the press, if we can’t get even this much in return? Frankly, if you are not going to cooperate, we don’t want to deal with you. It is an unwritten convention." Life can be such an education.

It was given innocuously enough. A standard envelope with the company’s address printed in the standard way. Presumably literature about the new project that was to be covered. Inside were three SBI gift cheques for 101 rupees each. We all know this sort of thing happens. But we are usually given a chance to decide what we want to do - accept or refuse. On this occasion, the ‘token of our appreciation’ was not just underhand but sneaky as well. A few enquiries (and then some) elicited an ‘oops, sorry, it wasn’t meant for you. Just for the record, we know of several places and writers where the rates are standard. Oh, yes, before you suggest otherwise, even with the leading English dailies.’ Someone else, whose relative had handled PR for some enterprises qualified, "Didn’t you know? Why, in the vernacular press, this (300) would be too little. Rates range between 500 to 1,000 rupees and sometimes more." Unsubstantiated mudslinging? Unexplored terrain?

The problem principally stems from the fact that all this is so unwritten - and unspoken. I feel squeamish just putting together this piece - have I not accepted folders and pens by the dozens, and, on the odd occasion, dined with the organizers of events that spill over to groaning buffet tables? Where do audio cassettes and the copy of a new book stand? Have you noticed how press meets invariably held around lunch or dinner? And the one-to-one ‘exclusive’ is promised with ‘oh, you can talk over dinner." Why, it is all done in such a spirit of bonhomie that an interviewee I once thought a possible friend was completely put off when I returned the lovely designer dupatta she couriered to me - the nicely worded letter I sent did nothing to assuage her irritation at having ‘only a gesture of friendship, like giving sweets for Diwali’ sent back.

Other tokens of trouble (all turned down, allow me to clarify) have included a silver incense stand, invitations to five star food fests at substantially discounted or waived rates, "why don’t we do lunch"s,  "where would you like to meet?"s, expenses paid trips and organically grown mangoes. And I am only a very small spoke in a very large wheel. Almost invariably, the ‘offers’ happen after the working relationship is established and the article already a foregone conclusion, if not already done, making the elaborate rejection/explaining a postscript of unwanted irritation. The onus to prove uprightness lies entirely with the writer; no offence intended, some taken.

From blasé tom-tomming like "hope you can give us better coverage this time" to discreet innuendo "was everything to your satisfaction? Is there anything we can do for you?" ---peering between the lines acquires new dimensions, both for the writer and the reader. If this write-up raises more questions than anything else, it’s because I could use a few answers myself.

Lalitha Sridhar is a Chennai-based freelance writer. Contact






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