Donna Bowater, associate at Marchmont Communications and former journalist, reveals the six incorrect perceptions PRs and journalists have about each other.
After a decade of working in local, national and international news journalism, there were the inevitable jokes of “joining the dark side” when I took on a role in communications.
But given my career in newspapers had included covering the tragic neglect of a vulnerable prisoner, senseless stabbings of teenagers on the streets of London, and drug crime and unprecedented corruption in Brazil, could journalism really lay claim to being “the light side”?
Despite the love-hate, cat-and-mouse relationship between the two professions, a significant number make the transition from media to PR, yet this seemingly hasn’t dented some common misconceptions of one another.
From one of many to have experienced both sides, here are six things PRs and journalists often get wrong about each other.
News reporting is transient
PRs: Just because a journalist has written about your client’s area of interest, it doesn’t mean they want to write about your client.
As a general news reporter, a consumer reporter and a foreign correspondent, I received no end of press releases targeting me based on the last story I wrote.
While there may be some logic in targeting a specialist correspondent, journalists – especially those working on daily or online titles – are often unlikely to revisit a story or topic immediately. News is news because it’s unexpected, unpredictable, extraordinary – and not repetitive.
Similarly, journalists increasingly move on fairly frequently – between roles and between publications. The reporter who covered a client or story last year may be reporting on something entirely different now.
More than two years after leaving Rio, I still receive press releases and invitations to media tours in Brazil from well-meaning PRs. Every time, it breaks my heart because I miss it very much, but it also wastes my time writing back to explain I’m no longer there.
The more successful PRs will keep track of the journalists covering their clients’ areas, and most importantly, keep up to date with any changes to ensure they are targeting the people most likely to cover their client – and not wasting the time of those who won’t.
I seem to have found myself on some PR list as a finance journalist. I'm not, so please don't send me stuff unless it's very obviously green flavoured finance… *sighs at the futility of this tweet*
— Emily Beament (@EmilyBeament) January 23, 2019
PRs are not advertisers
Journalists: Not all PR is advertising spam.
There’s a saying of disputed origin that “news is something somebody doesn’t want printed; all else is advertising.” So what about PR?
Many journalists – and I used to be one of them – take the view that anything that comes in the form of a press release or from a PR firm simply cannot be a story worth running.
But this assumes all PR is equal. In my experience of working with research institutes, academics and non-profits, PR and communications can sometimes even provide a public service. Without it, a lot of important and fascinating work would go unreported simply because the scientists behind it are often too busy or too unfamiliar with media to be able to share it with journalists directly.
The expertise of companies like Marchmont Communications, then, falls into understanding how to effectively communicate developments in complex areas such as climate change and sustainable agriculture to be relevant and engaging for wider audiences. Dismissing all PR as spin is like dismissing all journalism as fake news.
Folks, can we please talk about the *awful* communication strategies from climate science people?
Climate change is THE biggest challenge of our times. But surely we can communicate it a bit better?
— Sunny Hundal (@sunny_hundal) October 8, 2018
The importance of building relationships
PRs: The relationship is mightier than the press release
When covering the consumer beat for the Daily Express, I’d often get the usual morning deluge of phone calls from PRs asking: “Did you get my press release?” If I replied, “Yes, I’ll take a look,” this would suffice and they’d leave me alone. It felt like a box-ticking exercise, and it rarely captured my attention.
Instead, the PRs who took the time to understand what I covered, and when I needed to send my list-lines to editors, were the names I’d notice in my inbox.
Building long-term relationships with the journalists covering your beat will help lift your interactions above the rest of the noise. One journalist once told us at Marchmont Communications that if he saw an email from us, he’d know it was worth opening. In the age of inbox infinity, trust and recognition are the best we can hope for.
PRs don’t ask questions to be annoying
Journalists: PRs ask those annoying questions for a reason
PRs ask annoying questions because communicating in the digital age is annoying. They know as well as journalists that when they ask “did you receive my email?”, it’s not because they think email is unreliable, it’s because it’s a more socially acceptable way of asking: “Did you wilfully ignore my email or did you just miss it?”
On both sides of the fence, I’ve experienced email pitches accidentally overlooked that have turned into a story thanks to a simple follow up; PRs know journalists can only skim through their inbox for the most important messages, but it’s not an infallible filter. Until Gmail’s auto-replies include: “Not for me, thanks”, the phone follow-up is a necessity, unfortunately.
The same applies to the deadline question. PRs know journalists want interviews, statements, and information as soon as possible but when they ask the deadline, it’s to get a sense of how long they’ve got before they lose the reporter’s interest: is it end of today? End of the week? A week on Thursday?
See also: What sort of questions are you going to ask my client? In some cases, this might be an attempt to dodge or handle difficult topics, but often, it’s to help prepare and reassure a spokesperson who might not be used to speaking to journalists and is nervous of being blindsided.
Unless you’re deliberately trying to catch someone out, offering an idea of the line of questioning can also mean better, more considered responses.
Why do PR flacks ask reporters "when is your deadline?" anymore? It's 2014. My deadline is ASAP.
— Garrett Quinn (@GarrettQuinn) January 9, 2014
Pitches must be realistic
PRs: Journalists are people, not children
You might think your client’s end audience is the readers, but your first audience is the journalist and it’s not possible to simply hoodwink them into covering your client with a flimsy hook or a well-worn pitch. This is especially relevant for corporate PR.
Toe-curling phone conversations about why I should cover the launch of a new product or the results of a trivial poll are painful for both me and the PR. In this case, the best you can hope for is to offer journalists a line in a broader story – make your pitch useful to the journalist but acknowledge it won’t hold the front page.
It should be possible to imagine the headline or angle a newspaper will give a strong pitch. Or at least, when you say your pitch out loud, it should be pretty obvious whether it will engage the journalist you’re talking to. Would you find this interesting? Would you read this story in a paper? If not, why should anyone else? And don’t be afraid to say that to your client.
Dear PR, if you email me even once about "GALENTINE'S DAY" I swear that I will find a way to make it so that another email from you will never surface in my inbox ever again, trust me.
— Tyler McCall (@eiffeltyler) January 9, 2019
Yippee-new winner in 2018 #PRfail – sent out at 0949 today:
Hope you're well. Got an interesting Christmas story about gift receipts, with new research showing that half of us will need to return Christmas gifts this year, but 90% of receipts will end up lost..”
— Rory Cellan-Jones (@ruskin147) December 25, 2018
PR and journalist symbiosis
Journalists: PRs are people, not villains
Journalists are busy people, under a lot of pressure and usually on the receiving end of hundreds of emails and dozens of calls every day. I know. I used to be one. And the PRs cold-calling with insignificant pitches that waste our time and stop us from doing the important work of upholding democracy are a nuisance.
But consider this: they’re not setting out to make journalists’ lives difficult – far from it. I’ve been guilty of losing my temper with PRs when I’ve been on deadline or swamped with multiple stories.
But I’ve also found PRs to be a valuable resource at other times when trying to contact a spokesperson linked to their clients. Oftentimes, they’ve been graceful and helpful even when no longer – or never even – retained by the person I’m trying to reach.
And something I learned, particularly from my time as a foreign correspondent, is that everyone is a potential contact, so why risk making unnecessary enemies of people who could one day be the introduction, contact or link that you need? After all, we’re all cut from a similar cloth.
Ok I know I've been in PR for a hot minute now, but I still get so butthurt whenever a journalist is rude to me. When I was a reporter, I was never short with a PR person unless they interrupted me while I was talking. Wtf,.
— Katrina Cameron (@KatCameron91) September 27, 2018