Today I’ve got a guest post from Emily Turner looking at some of the aspects of the relationship between PRs and journalists – from someone who has experience from both sides of the fence.
Emily’s an NCTJ-trained journalist with fourteen years’ public relations and crisis communications experience in the public and private sectors. She blogs at thewomaninbib68.co.uk.
It was really interesting to read a well-thought out piece by Matthew Brown on the relationship between journalists and PRs.
Many journalists want to go back to the time when they could get information direct from source without a PR getting in the way. Who can blame them? Those days were ripe for a gaff-laden quote. But the old days will never return. Businesses and organisations have too much to lose. A word out of turn can go global thanks to social media and business is increasingly risk adverse.
The relationship between PRs and journalists is complex. It is interesting that nearly two-thirds of those in PR in the UK are women, according to the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, while Women in Journalism says women are underrepresented in Britain’s newspapers.
It’s a misconception that a PR’s job is easy, it’s not that far off from a journalist’s duties. There’s reactive work as calls come in and complaints from the public and customers on internet forums and social media. There’s the schedule of proactive work, crisis communications training, media analysis, blogging, tweeting, Facebook, releases to upload on websites, interviews to be recorded, press conferences to arrange and meetings with other organisations.
The journalist’s common war cry is that PRs don’t put out enough proactive stuff or enough usable proactive stuff. Well no one within a company willingly offers up a story to their PR. Why add to their own workload? PRs have to sniff them out and hound until they get all the details and then,when they’ve squeezed the blood out of a stone, often go through a torturous clearance process. If the story involves several organisations or companies, the release could go through numerous amendments. I think my personal record is 25 amendments between 15 parties.
As for usable stuff, this is the delicate balance of PR. As a PR you are keenly aware of a journalist’s needs. Many PRs were once journalists themselves. You are also aware of your company’s or client’s needs. Sometimes the client or company will not listen to the PR’s advice and a non-news, puffy release goes out. Often it could be because there are internal or external politics going on behind the scenes.
The recession is going to have a dramatic impact on PR. The reduced PR service will mean it will be more difficult to get a query answered, fewer interviews and far less proactive output. The standard of trying to answer every query will drop and it will become acceptable to be unable to answer queries because the manpower is not there. PRs will be forced to focus on communicating directly with their key audiences – customers, shareholders, peers and the public — through social media and the internet rather than relying on the media.
Here’s some thoughts on the world of PR:
Puff v non-puff
PRs hate cheese and they hate puff. They hate having to write it, place it and talk about it. Most PRs are honest with journalists about their stories. If it is weak they might try and strike a deal that the journalists prints it in return for access to a better story another time. A puff or weak piece won’t necessarily be the fault of the PR, it has probably come from much higher up and they’ve probably advised against doing it. If you aren’t going to use it, say so and this can be fed back with a “told you so!” If the release says “unique”, “leading” or “most popular”, then it is because the client has insisted on it or no payment.
Journalists often want a dedicated PR contact but it is safer to email your query into a mail box that everyone in the press office can access. If you mail it to your dedicated contact and they are not in, you risk delay in your query being answered. Also do not ring the press office and then fail to leave a message. If you leave a message it goes on the query sheet to be answered, rings do not. Rings do not indicate how urgent your query is either. Be aware that email queries get on the response list faster than messages left on voicemall. It is always a good idea to follow up your email/voicemail with a call a few hours later to check it has been received.
Reading press releases
Please read the press release thoroughly before phoning. All too often the journalist will call to ask questions which reading the release will answer.
The PR call
PRs never win. If they call to check a story’s been received, the journalist feels annoyed. Often the PR has been told to do a ring around by their boss. Also if the PR doesn’t ring and the journalist misses a potential story, they ring the PR annoyed that it wasn’t brought to their attention.
It helps when journalists are consistent with deadlines. Tell the PR if it is a print or broadcast deadline or a personal deadline you are working to, as this gives the PR a real idea of how urgent the request is. If you lie and say you need it absolutely by 3pm “or the world will end” only to change it to “yeah, 48 hours is fine”, the PR is never going to take your deadlines seriously. A journalist who is always realistic with deadlines is rarely going to be disappointed. Remember the PR is unlikely to have the information you need to hand and will have to source it and get it cleared.
Swearing at a PR is unacceptable at any time, no matter how under pressure you are or how close your deadline is. If you continue to behave in an offensive way then most press office managers will request you email in your queries in future or refuse to deal with you at all. If you wish to build a relationship with a regular PR then you need to gain their trust. This means being fair in what you print, give a reasonable timeframe for a right of reply and then using that right of reply, have a consistent manner, give consideration to who is driving the story and their motive and give as much deadline notice as you can.
If you’ve gained the PR’s trust, then it’s likely that the PR will brief you off-the-record when necessary. Most PRs know off-the-record is not really off-the-record. But they might give you background for your guidance, which they should say how they expect it to be used (eg non-attributable to them). You can then use that information and try and get it to stand up elsewhere with other sources. If you use that information and attribute it to them, the PR will never give you that extra background again and a useful part of that relationship will be lost. Likewise if you need advice on whether what you are printing is true or feasible, a PR is likely to give you guidance if you’ve got a good relationship.
Many PRs put out a press release with details about interviews. If interviews are to be held on a specific date at a specific time, there will be good reason for that. If you call up a day after the interviews were held, you are likely to be disappointed.
Some journalists relish the game of “word roundabouts”. This occurs when the PR is not saying the words the journalist wants to hear. The journalist will constantly rephrase what the PR is saying, ending it with “is that what you saying?” only for the PR to say “no” and then repeating their original words. If a PR has said the same thing three times then it’s time to accept the statement that is being offered.
Often journalists feel angry that a rival has a story that they haven’t and will blame the PR for keeping it from them. It is not for PRs to share another newspaper’s tip offs or what other newspapers are writing about that week. Don’t ask for exclusivity on a story either. It’s unworkable unless you are offering Max Clifford sums of money.
Weighing up bridge burning
PRs know that they need journalists to get their stories out. But PRs help journalists too. PRs often help out less experienced journalists, showing them the ropes of a particular industry and taking time to explain things in more detail. If you are going to stuff your relationship with your regular PR for a story, it’s worth considering a few points. Is this story going to really enhance your career? Could this PR go places in their career and will you cross paths again in the future? If you stuff this PR could it undermine your relationship with other PRs?
A PR is never a “PR girl” (girls are under 18 years of age), a PR babe (babes are under 12 months of age) or a PR guru.