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Friend or Foe?
The Complicated Relationship
Between News Media and PR
by KERRY ONEILL, PR Account Director
JUL 27, 2011
A few weeks ago, I read a story about how the New York Times was “curbing” freelance columnist David Pogue’s ability to speak at various events involving publicists or public relations. The story said that his participation in these paid events, specifically one hosted by Ragan Communications, violated the Times’ ethics policy, which states “Staff members may not advise individuals or organizations how to deal with the news media… They should not take part in public relations workshops that charge admission or imply privileged access to Times people.”
As a PR professional, I was a bit annoyed. I’ve participated in numerous webinars – including the one with Pogue that seemed to have spurred this controversial article – that have featured tips for those of us in PR. Many are the same: Don’t follow up; if we’re interested, we will call you; include a brief pitch concisely describing your news release; always use email; be familiar with the reporter and their beat, etc. While it’s helpful, I can’t really see how Pogue offering advice – paid or unpaid – on what news he likes to get and how he likes to receive it as providing “insider” trading tips that would taint the reputation of the New York Times.
Regardless of what Pogue might have divulged, I highly doubt that the hundreds or thousands of participants in said webinar actually convinced him to write a story about their client with said tips. Because no matter how convincing a pitch or creative a press release – or how many “useful” professional webinars you participate in – the journalist can easily delete your email and avoid your phone call. For the most part, they have full discretion in terms of what they write. On a personal note, even if I have a relationship with a reporter, that doesn’t mean that I have any more “influence” in getting them to write a story. It might help them read it or offer me a suggestion or two (which is good to do from time to time), but it certainly doesn’t mean that I have enough influence to get a story written.
(I wish it were that easy!)
I get that one of the main points of contention with Pogue participating in PR events is that he was compensated; however, this discussion brings up a bigger issue of the relationship between the media and public relations professionals.
It’s these kinds of situations that occur within the realm of PR that get people confused about what we do. First off, we don’t have the kind of “influence” that most people seem to think we have. And, most of us don’t really do that “spin” thing, either. What we do is creatively package a news story and accompanying pitch in order to grab a journalist’s attention. We do research up front to make sure that our client’s story is reaching the most appropriate reporter, and ultimately, the most appropriate audience. And we follow trends that we may be able to leverage for a client. It’s our job to educate the public about our client’s news, and in order for us to do that, it’s sort of imperative that journalists educate us about how best to communicate with them so that our client’s goal becomes a reality.
But, the bottom line is that journalists can’t live without PR professionals, and PR can’t live without journalists. It’s a weird and sometimes contentious relationship really, but most certainly not a “cozy” one. Ask any PR professional if they’ve ever been yelled at by a reporter, and I guarantee that nine folks out of 10 have. However iffy the relations are between PR pros and journalists, it is a mutually beneficial one.
For example, journalists call us to see if we have any story ideas on slow news days or send us requests when they are looking for clients or people we may know who may be a fit for something they are work on – and we try to help as best we can. That doesn’t mean that they owe us one, but we want to be helpful to build on that relationship. That’s why it’s called media relations.
And on a local level, our local Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) chapter and Baltimore PR Council are constantly hosting events with local media to help us better understand the content they are looking for and how they want to receive it. People might leave the event and email the reporter or editor, but that connection may or may not lead to a placement.
With the media constantly evolving and reporters changing beats every couple of months, it’s important for journalists to educate us to make sure we know what kind of news they want, via the means they want to receive it. At the end of the day, it’s for everyone’s benefit that will all learn how to work together. The equation is simple:
Informed PR people = Better pitches = Intrigued reporters = Awesome stories = Happy viewers/readers/subscribers + Happy clients + Happy news editors