What Reporters Should Know About “The Dark Side”

I read an interesting blog post yesterday entitled “What all PR people should know about journalists”, written by Rohit Bhargava on his Influential Marketing Blog. The post had been “re-tweeted” by someone I follow on Twitter. As a former journalist who came over to the PR “Dark Side” 12 years ago, I was naturally intrigued. Mr. Bhargava listed six lessons that he has learned that “most journalists know and many PR professionals are blissfully unaware of.”

The six lessons are as follows: 1) Your BS is obvious 2) Timing trumps all 3) Reputation matters 4) Features are not as important as an angle 5) Speed and contactability make the difference 6) Peer pitching works. The writer expounds on this list here: http://tinyurl.com/7s3vxj, but if you’re a successful publicist, Mr. Bhargava’s insights will fall into the “duh” category. If you are a PR professional and this list is eye-opening, then you are either right out of school (you get a pass) or you really suck at your job and it’s people like you that give us flaks a bad name… But I digress.

My reason for writing this post is not to knock Mr. Bhargava’s blog post – he writes a very successful and generally insightful blog – rather, I’m tired of always hearing about what reporters think about us “annoying” publicists and how WE can do a better job. It’s about time we PR professionals enlighten you journalists about what we think about you and how YOU can do a better job. As someone who has worked on both sides of the phone, I have some lessons that I have learned along the way that, to turn Mr. Bhargava’s statement around, “most PR professionals know and many journalists are blissfully unaware of.”

Here’s my Top Ten List of What Reporters Should Know About “The Dark Side” (in no particular order):

1. The “Dark Side” is not that dark. I know it’s hard for many reporters to believe, but for the most part, PR folks are not evil like Darth Vader. OK, so Lizzie Grubman didn’t do us publicists any favors when she ran down a crowd of people in the Hamptons with her Mercedes several years ago shouting “F**k you, white trash”. That was really more of a “class warfare” issue anyway. Regardless, I can name plenty of reporters that have given the Fourth Estate a bad name. Does Jayson Blair ring a bell? So, please cut us some slack. We don’t look down on you, so please don’t look down on us. We’re just doing our job.

2. We don’t think you’re stupid. Contrary to what you may think, we’re not out to dupe you. There are some reporters out there that I’ve encountered over the years that truly believe that every pitch they receive is a ruse. We understand that if we don’t have an existing relationship that you’ll need to be more thorough in vetting the pitch, but trying to pull one over on you is not in our best interest or the best interest of our clients. Our reputation in this business is all we have. If a publicist loses their credibility, then they’re all done. Most good publicists understand what’s newsworthy and won’t waste your time overselling a great story about our client’s “new coffee flavor” for instance! We’ll save that story for when you owe us one.

3. It’s a symbiotic relationship. Whether you want to admit it or not, you need us as much as we need you. If this wasn’t the case, there would be no need for query services like PR Newswire’s ProfNet or Peter Shankman’s HARO. You need sources and story ideas and we have them. What’s more, a good PR agency contact can be a direct conduit for multiple sources – one stop shopping!

4. Some day we may represent Bono or Bill Gates. OK, so we don’t always have the sexiest clients, but just as you may start out covering selectmen’s meetings for the Carlisle Mosquito and end up a columnist at The New York Times, we could some day represent a client you would desperately want to write about. Keep that in mind when you’re pooh-poohing our pitch about the new coffee shop that opened on Main Street.

5. We are just as busy as you are. You’re busy, we get it. So are we. Please don’t always act like you’re in the middle of breaking Watergate when we call. Just as you have editors riding you, we have clients that expect the cover of Time magazine. When we call, it’s usually just a quick follow up on something that we sent you. You can spare 60 seconds. Now, if we call you with a stupid question at 5:00 p.m. when we know that you are on deadline, please, feel free to blast us.

6. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”. If our client is on the hot seat, we will unequivocally do everything we can, short of lying, to protect our client’s name and reputation. This is what they pay us for. At this point, all friendships between reporter and publicist must be suspended. We understand this and so should you. Getting the dirt and deciphering our “spin” is your problem. There is nothing unethical about putting a spin on the truth. Understand that we all carry the labels “Flak” & “Spinmeister” proudly. When the dust settles, we can be friends again.

7. You can’t always expect an exclusive. Just because we also gave the story to your cross-town rival, doesn’t mean we screwed you. While there are some stories that may deserve an exclusive for various reasons, most of the time it’s not a big deal if the other paper runs the same story on the same day. If you write for The Boston Globe, your readership isn’t reading the Boston Herald anyway. It’s safe to assume that if we don’t say ahead of time that we’re giving you an exclusive, then we’re not.

8. Please don’t call our clients directly. There’s a very good reason why our clients hire us, please don’t cut us out. We make our livelihood by publicizing CEOs and their companies. If they had the time and expertise to do this effectively, then they wouldn’t need us. When you go directly to our clients, it either really annoys them and we hear about it or they begin to wonder what they need us for – even though we’re the ones who initiated the relationship. Please call us if you want to talk to them.

9. Just because you didn’t think about it doesn’t make it a bad idea. PR professionals are a pretty creative bunch. One of the best methods of garnering press for our clients is to lump them into a larger trend piece. When we bring you an idea for a trend piece, please don’t turn your nose up at it. You can take credit for the idea. If you do decide to use it, just please include our client prominently in the story.

10. Don’t make us do your job. Please don’t send us interview questions for our clients to fill out the answers to. Some PR folks may disagree with me on this, but from my experience, this interview method creates more work for everyone involved and the answers to the questions are never as good as if the reporter spent 5 minutes on the phone asking the questions themselves.

Well, that’s my list. I’m sure that there will be plenty of people who read this who will disagree with some of my points. Conversely, I’m sure there will be others who feel I left out some critical insights. Either way, I welcome your feedback!

Thomas Lee

Tom has more than 13 years of public relations and journalism experience. Before joining 451, Tom spent five years at Regan Communications in Boston, providing strategic communications for a wide range of local and national companies including Dunkin’ Donuts, New Balance Athletic Shoe Inc., RE/MAX of New England, Boston Celtics, Mix 98-5 (WBMX-FM), Boston magazine, Boston Herald, Boston’s Weekly Dig, Boston Wine Expo, Cask ‘n Flagon, Bluestone Holdings, Langer Broadcasting, and The Glynn Hospitality Group. Prior to Regan, Tom served as Public & Media Relations Manager at The Massachusetts Hospital Association and for three years as spokesman for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.

18 thoughts on “What Reporters Should Know About “The Dark Side”

  1. I absolutely love this. You can’t swing the proverbial dead cat without finding a blog article complaining about incompetent PR people. I forgot that every journo is Edward R. Murrow, has never mispronounced a name or misquoted a source.

    I know plenty of editors and writers who don’t understand number 3.

    Also, I have had number 8 happened to me, i.e., was told it was a stupid idea only to have the writer do the story 3 months later without my client. That was awesome.

    Great article.

  2. Great job and true to the core. It’s an interdependent relationship between PR and Reporters, and that is coming from the Client side.

    From my point of view, PR acts as a filter for the reporter, and it’s not like they’re asking for a bi-line – they are bringing (hopefully) reputable concepts and ideas to the table.

  3. My original post that you referenced had lots of people asking for this as a follow up. Thanks for doing this and coming up with such a great list. I’m halfway through my own version, but will definitely reference this when I get my post up. And your point about the lessons being fairly obvious is well taken … as you might have noticed with some of my posts, they can feel quite basic, but still offer useful lessons to pass around and recall. The point sometimes isn’t to share something we don’t already know, but to help us all refocus on some of the lessons that get lost as we struggle to do our jobs and deliver what we’re asked to.

  4. good stuff, you all. and commenter jenn above… i think you were looking for “byline” — “bi-line” sounds a little, well, curious?

    all in good fun, kids… all in good fun.


  5. This is a great post – you basically have outlined here everything top PR pros know and feel when interacting with journalists. I especially love the symbiotic relationship, which is what I use to inspire our interns and Jr.s to buck up and make the calls without fear. Every journalist is annoyed until they need a story – where do they think 75% of the material they use is from ?

    In truth, with the state of media today, where reporters are being laid off at a ridiculous pace (btw an excellent Twitter site for updates on this is http://twitter.com/themediaisdying) and being forced to expand coverage and provide more content with less time for research, there is argument for a far more collaborative relationship between PR pros and the media. In the coming year I wouldn’t be surprised if more PR people actually start getting calls / emails from journalists asking for content and ideas instead of the other way-round. Then again I may be totally off base and a rube. Time will tell!

    Anyway, nice work.

  6. Amen, hallelujah, and all that jazz. This is simply the best thing I’ve read in quite a while. Yes, there’s a lot of idiot PR people out there trying to pitch stories about cell phones to people who write only about LCD TVs. But there’s also plenty of us who know our industries intimately, know our media just as well, and fully understand why a particular story might be of interest to a certain reporter. We’re certainly not all evil, and having to wear that label definitely gets tiring after a while.

  7. I applaud virtually all of this post as an appropriate and well-written response to countless articles, speeches and diatribes from journalists about how public relations professionals are akin to something you scrape off the bottom of your shoe with a stick. I say virtually all because I disagree with the point that any and all “spin” is okay as long as it’s not lying. Sorry. Taunting journalists to “find the truth if you can” does not comprise ethical behavior or sustainable public relations (see http://blindingglimpse.wordpress.com/2008/08/22/sustainable-public-relations-a-proposed-philosophy-practice/). Deliberate obfuscation and playing around the truth is just wrong. Our job is to help bridge the gap between our organizations/clients and the public. We help organizations adapt to, alter or maintain their environments to accomplish organizational goals. “Spinning the truth” just isn’t right no matter what kind of spin you try to put on it.


  8. Sounds like we follow some of the same people on twitter (I read the same blog post based on a retweet) and had the same reaction. But then, I am not a PR student or just out of college, so, to be expected.

    I think there is a “stop picking on PR people” whiff in the air. I just posted something in a similar vein, a “can’t we just all get along” rant. Yes, PR is changing. The media world is changing. Social media is offering ways to go direct to consumer. Get over it. Change with it.

  9. Great post, all stuff that has been talked about since the relationship of a Journo and PR existed. The real problem is that NONE of this will change. We are and will continue to be at the beck and call of journalists. That’s the game. I agree that both sides need to bend, but that’s where the relationship comes in. If it’s a working relationship, there’s no BS. The connection creates quality for both sides, i.e. great stories for the reporters and great coverage for the client. The relationship is at the heart of ALL of this. The real issue is time. Reporters just don’t have the time to build relationships like they used to. Coffee every tuesday isn’t going to cut it now because Mr. Joe/Mary Reporter has not only a hard copy deadline, but also a podcast to record and a video or two to shoot…all by 5pm. This is where social media comes into play. Reporters need to use tools like Twitter to maintain and build those relationships. There are far more PRs on Twitter than reporters. The same rules of engagement apply on Twitter as they do in the real world. Make your connections worth while. No fluff. No BS. Keep it straight to the point. Keep it transparent and be honest. That builds credibility and opportunity for your clients.

  10. This is wonderful!!! As a former journalist and current pr specialist, I really appreaciate the way you responded. It helps to remind others that pr specialists are professional people, too.
    Many, many thanks!

  11. This whole flack v. journalist thing reminds me of the snowboarders v. skiers debate that used to go on before we all became enlightened. As more and more reporters jump ship, this divide is only going to narrow. As a reporter turned PR guy, I have worked with some of the same people from both sides of the fence and I can tell you the PR people I admired as a reporter are the same people I admire as a PR guy. They are people who do their jobs with no BS and don’t see themselves as any lower on the food chain than reporters. BTW, can we get a better name for people who are in the field of public relations? That would help.

  12. Journalists don’t like to admit it but PR professionals are our best assets especially since they can create opportunities to talk to important sources that we might never have gotten.
    I have used the here’s a list of questions to fill out trick but only as a last resort when I have schedule conflicts and I need to get answers. (why is it my sources wait until I have to do a story to go on vacation or to business conferences anyway? Is there a hidden message there?)
    Journalists need to realize that they are in a symbiotic relationship with PR professionals and we’d all get farther.

  13. Thanks for an excellent look into the PR professionals’ side (must there be a “side”? I’m all for collaboration) of the story. As a journalist, I am most appreciative of the PR folk who contact me with pitches. They have, almost without exception, been extremely courteous and helpful to me as I try to work their stories into my publishing schedule.

    The only criticism I have is that some pitches aren’t at all targeted to the audience. I publish an environmental/social action web magazine, so I’m not really interested in the latest celebrity gossip or super-expensive fashion that will go out of style in a month. I rarely respond to those inquiries, because they were obviously shot out into the blogosphere at random. My one suggestion for the budding PR person is to do your homework before wasting anyone’s time (including your own). If you do, you’ll most likely find an eager journalist who is happy to receive your feeds and will do what they can to place your story.

    Three cheers for the PR Flaks from a very appreciative Journo.

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