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!
About the author
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.
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