PRs and journalists – exploring the relationship

SimonGeneral6 Comments

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.

Con­tact

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.

Dead­lines

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.

Atti­tude

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.

Off-the-record

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.

Inter­views

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.

Wast­ing time

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.

Exclu­siv­ity

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?

Finally

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.

6 Comments on “PRs and journalists – exploring the relationship”

  1. kathy

    Good, common-sense piece although some PRs do regularly fail to respond by deadline and we have to do a “no comment received by the time of going to press.”
    Other than that I think be fair, treat people with respect and try and understand the job of others – whatever role you are in – and good relationships can be built

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  5. Gillian Langmead

    The elephant in the room is the psychology between journalist and PRO. The reporter does not want to feel manipulated – on principle. This brings in Moloney’s theories on exchange and contest relationships between the two.
    Simon Wakeman also mentions the PRO’s role as mediator between media and direct contact; this can work both ways, and highlights the importance of PROs taking a more targeted and focussed approach to the audiences they are communicating with, rather than scatter-gun press release dissemination to everyone on their media list.
    As an ex-journalist myself, I also appreciate the differences between news sense and puff. Working in a developing country, where journalism is often less sophisticated, the nuances not always appreciated, however.

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