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Journalists and PRs – why can’t we all just get along?

The relationship between public relations professionals and journalists

Journalists and PRs – if they were in a relationship, Facebook would describe it as ‘It’s Complicated’. To some, they are two sides of the same coin, but too often they’re seen as grumpy old hacks and those working on ‘the dark side’.

Here at No Brainer we know that building, maintaining and developing positive and mutually rewarding relationships with journalists is essential to our clients and to growing our own business. Relationship building should be the core skill on which a successful PR company is built upon. The 2016 Journalism Trends survey from Mynewsdesk threw up some interesting findings – none more so than the fact that journalists still see personal relationships with PR professionals as the key line of communication, above any social media channel or even email.

To hold up our side of the deal, for a PR professional that means understanding the needs of the media outlets and journalists you’re speaking to. It means understanding that they’re not just sitting at their desks with an empty newspaper waiting for you to call. And it means understanding that they’re going to need a legitimate, robust news reason to help you out.

 After spending more than ten years working as a journalist in both print and broadcast, I recently made the transition into PR and so – albeit with just a few weeks of PR experience under my belt – here’s my take on what each needs from each other. 

What journalists want from PRs….

1. First and foremost, a journalist wants quality.

Ok, ok, I know….a good PR should only ever push out quality stuff, but we know that’s not always the case. A reporter or correspondent on deadline at a national paper or dealing with a big, breaking story doesn’t want to hear from you if you’re offering a press release about the opening of a new shop. But on the flip side, I promise that whether you approach a journalist by phone or email, if it’s quality content, presented well, they will listen.

2. Try and offer the full package.

I hope I’m not insulting anyone when I say that many journalists are either lazy or so up against it that they don’t have time/can’t be bothered to do too much extra work. If you can provide pics, audio, video, a ready-made guest or an interview they’ll be grateful for it and there’s every chance they’ll look on you – and your story – a little more favourably. You need to be useful to them.

 3. Honesty is always the best policy.

There’s no budging I’m afraid on this one. Journalists will sniff out a liar or a PR person trying to push something that’s nothing like as good as they’re making out. If you don’t have the answer to a question, just admit it and promise to find out whatever it is they want to know.

4. Time is of the essence for journalists.

When you’re pitching a story, I reckon you have about ten seconds to get the journalist interested. I was never one for small talk from PR firms – I just wanted them to tell me as quickly as possible what and who they were offering. Speed is also important when you’re dealing with any queries. If you say you’ll get back to a journalist on a certain day or by a certain time, make sure you do. And you should think about timing too. A newsdesk doesn’t want to hear from you at all if they’re dealing with a terrorist atrocity – but equally, there might be some days when they’re crying out for some light to balance the shade.

5. Understand who you’re calling or emailing.

I can’t remember the number of times I took a call from a PR person who had no idea what my radio station was all about, pitching a story in some sort of ridiculous PR language. Basically they were just throwing their rubbish out as far and wide as possible without any thought – and hoping it stuck somewhere. There’s no excuse for that anymore. There are so many resources and media databases available that can help you find out a bit about an outlet or a journalist before you pick up the phone or press send. If you don’t have access to a database like Gorkana, have a look on social media.

What PR professionals want from journalists…

1. Feedback!

It’s very hard to get better at anything if you’re not being told where you’re going wrong so feedback from journalists is very valuable. If you don’t like a story that you’ve had by email or over the phone, it won’t take you two minutes to explain why. A two-line email might mean the next time that PR person calls you, it’s with something worth listening to.

2. A little sympathy and some good manners go a long way.

I feel a little hypocritical writing this but it’s true. You never know when you might need a relationship with the PR guy that you’ve just fobbed off so why not be polite on the phone!? PR and journalism are built on personal relationships so why burn a bridge if you don’t have to.

3. Honesty works both ways.

When I was working in newspapers I saw journalists go behind the backs of press officers when, if they had just asked a question, they might have got the answer they needed – or a very good reason why they couldn’t have that answer. Remember they have different objectives and stakeholders to you. But this goes back to relationships. If you’re honest with a PR person, you’re more likely to get what you want. That’s not to say there aren’t times when, as a journalist, you might need to navigate your way around an unnecessarily obstructive press office(r)!

4. Trust. Simple. If a press officer has given you an off the record steer, then it should stay off the record. No ifs, buts or maybes. I sound like a broken record, but we’re back on the importance of relationships again!

5. Give credit where it’s due.

If you do decide to use a story from an agency or an in-house team, giving credit where credit is due is vital. They’re not giving you a story for their own good – it’s because they’re being paid by a client or by the company they work for to get results. A mention of a company can be done in a subtle way and agreeing how that mention is made before going on air or to print is a good way to keep everyone happy – it also avoids those excruciatingly clumsy mentions of a product or a brand.

So you see, it’s not so difficult. If everyone works together then the relationship can be mutually beneficial and rewarding to all parties.

Leave a comment...

  1. Rowan Bridge

    As someone who has spent twenty years being on the receiving end (as a journalist) I think what Steve has said here (on both fronts) is absolutely spot on. Full disclosure: I used to work with him at 5live. But the point still stands, he’s right on every point.

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