The Biggest Mistakes You Can Make with Reporters

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Working with reporters is never an easy matter for communicators.

There’s always a natural tension between journalists and PR/IR folks. The communicators want their messages to get across, and reporters don’t want to be spun. Mistakes can be costly. To avoid these, I’ve created a list of biggest mistakes you can make with reporters. There are 15 entries.

The Biggest Mistakes You Can Make with Reporters

  1. Don’t lie – Lying, even little white lies, will come back to haunt you. Reporters view lying as almost a capital offense.
  2. Don’t waste their time — Our guest on Episode 1 of Talking Communications with Farrell Kramer said one of her pet peeves is when sources get to the end of an interview only to say something like “that was just background.” This just wastes the reporter’s time.
  3. Don’t give their stories to another reporter — This happened to me. I interviewed the CEO of a firm for a feature story I thought was clever. Apparently it was. He gave it to another publication — before my story could run.
  4. Don’t stop answering the phone — If you don’t want to participate in a story, particularly with a reporter you know well, just tell him or her. Don’t leave messages unanswered. This will just irritate reporters.
  5. Don’t rub their faces in your coverage — Reporters know companies and PR firms want publicity and they feel compelled not to be spun. This is a bit of an uneasy peace. You don’t want to point out to them how great their coverage of your story was — although it’s fine to compliment the writing or something specific.
  6. Don’t let them bluff you — If you are the focus of a negative story, don’t be fooled into participating to “get your point across” unless it makes sense. Remember, reporters can’t quote you if you don’t talk to them. Sometimes, a short written statement is sufficient.
  7. Don’t get angry — It’s always amazing what people say when they’re angry. Sometimes, reporters will try to annoy you to get you to speak more freely. This was one of my favorite techniques as an investigative reporter.
  8. Don’t try to be funny — A client of mine some years ago found a way to be clever during an A-list interview. The problem was this: It was on a point that we did not want to highlight. When humor fails it can be even worse. Bad jokes often translate into very inappropriate remarks. If you’re not a natural comic, I’d stay away from this.
  9. Don’t assume you’re pals — It’s easy to think a reporter is your “friend” if he/she writes a positive story. They may have a positive opinion of you and your organization now, but if the news turns bad, that reporter will absolutely write negative stories.
  10. Think before your complain — It’s OK to complain to a reporter about a story you didn’t like, but make sure it’s a reasonable complaint. If your company’s earnings plummet, the story is going to be negative. You should make this judgment based on whether the reporter’s story was unfair or inaccurate in the context of the news itself.
  11. Don’t go over a reporter’s head — If you don’t like a story and it’s reasonable to complain given the above point, complain to the reporter. If you go over his/her head, the reporter will hate you forever. Go to an editor only as a last resort. Often, the reporter will continue covering you, only now he or she will be angry.
  12. Don’t pitch the whole newsroom — This is just dumb. I was once sitting in the AP’s business desk where I got a phone pitch that I rejected. A minute later, the reporter next to me got the same pitch. Then another. Then another, around the newsroom the pitch went. Clearly, none of us wrote the story.
  13. Do your homework — Know your subject matter and make sure you’re pitching an appropriate reporter with your story. If you call a reporter or publication that would not write the type of story you’re pitching, you lose all credibility.
  14. Research the reporter — A call out of nowhere from a reporter with a possibly negative story could be real trouble. Make sure you check out the reporter — prior stories, beat, etc., for clues as to what they’re up to. Sometimes, investigative reporters and others will mask the true nature of their stories. Don’t be surprised.
  15. Don’t whine — Don’t complain to reporters that your client didn’t get in their story after giving an interview. Sometimes they’ll be quoted, sometimes not. If it happens again and again, you might then have a discussion. But often, there’s just not enough room to quote everyone. Good reporters try to spread it around.