Relationships Are Still the Bedrock of Good PR

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This post was originally published on MBS Insights, the blog of MBS Value Partners.

Don’t be fooled by the proliferation of Twitter handles and hashtags in the media these days. The bedrock of solid public relations remains the personal relationships developed over time between companies and the journalists who cover them.

Hearing this, you might figure I’m some kind of Luddite who never liked the bloggers, podcasts and i-literati who have become such an important part of our media landscape. Not true. In fact, I’m very much one of them, launching my first podcast as far back as 2006.

I do feel, however, that unbridled belief in the social conversation has led us down the garden path toward the belief that developing real relationships with reporters and editors is passé. That we can effectively publicize our ventures without ever picking up the phone or stepping out from behind our computers. I’m here to say that’s just, plain wrong.

Building solid relationships with reporters is one of those core components of good PR that never falls out of favor. We may use different tools to manage and interact with these individuals, but the idea remains comfortably old-fashioned: treat these folks like you would any other business relationship. Here’s why:

  • Journalists respond to the familiar. This should be obvious, but let’s go ahead and say it. Reporters are more likely to take your call or read your email if they know you. That’ doesn’t mean they’ll listen to your pitch and then write every word you tell them. No way. But it does mean that you at least have a chance to deliver your pitch. Your relationship gives you a leg up in breaking through the noise,
  • Reporters like knowledgeable sources. No reporter wants to spend time on the phone listening to neophyte publicists pitch them stories they barely understand themselves. Sadly, this happens all the time; I remember it un-fondly from my own days as a reporter. But the flipside is true as well. Journalists are generally happy to hear from individuals who provide real information at appropriate times and don’t overdue it. This, to them, adds value.
  • Newspeople need access to newsmakers.  A journalist with no sources at the companies he or she covers is not accomplishing much. Good reporters know this and cultivate sources within their beats so they have access to the people they need, when they need them. And this can be as little as a moment’s notice. Given that reality, reporters will be receptive if you can deliver this type of access, to both yourself and your senior executives, on deadline, time after time.
  • You’ll be better positioned in a crisis. When everything goes wrong and your company is in the early stages of a major crisis, reporters who know your organization will seek you out for information. And they’re usually willing to listen to what you have to say. This is far, far better than the alternative, which is the journalists writing their stories without company input because they simply don’t know whom to call. Relationships are a major crisis-planning tool.
  • Companies need to know their own audiences. To effectively communicate our stories to the media, it’s important to understand the particular needs of news organizations that cover us and the journalists within them. You may know that one reporter is always under pressure to get the story first and another has an editor who cherishes CEO access. Understanding these needs can help you tremendously. It’s hard to meet your journalists’ requirements if you don’t know what they are in the first place.

This list is by no means scientific or exhaustive. There may be another bullet or two you can come up with. But being exhaustive was not my intent.

I simply want us all to remember that while we have never had more exciting tools with which to do our jobs, the core skills of networking and relationship building are still to be highly prized in the modern mediascape. They are at the very core of what we do.

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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.

What Do Reporters Want?

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Almost everyone reading this blog works with reporters in one way or another. We take their calls. Pass along information. Set up interviews. At times, we reach out to them directly. We do this so frequently that it becomes almost automatic.

Thus, it strikes me that it might be useful to take a step back and ask one of those 40,000-foot questions: “Just what do reporters want?”

It’s far too easy — and glib — to respond: “They want whatever they called about.” While true, that misses the key element of the PR/news media relationship. Reporters, and the editors they work for, want one thing above all else: good stories. That’s it. They want good stories, defined as those stories that will make it into their publications or onto the air with the greatest possible impact.

All we need to do is help them get these stories. Somehow, though, it doesn’t always seem like we’re working toward this goal.  Certainly there are times — particularly related to public company communications — when the PR strategy calls for not responding to reporters. And that’s fine, when there’s a good reason for it. However, much of the time we are actively seeking media coverage or working with reporters who cover us every day, and this is where we need to think in terms of story.

What makes a good story? First, something new is usually a nice place to start — particularly if it can be combined with an exclusive of some sort. Something smart is also good, but it has to be smart in a way that is clear and relates directly to newsworthy topics. (An expert who can quickly and insightfully comment on news events is a good way to provide something smart.) Sometimes, access to an important figure is all the reporter needs for a good story. The litmus test for all this is the resulting story must be strong. Try asking yourself if you’d read or watch the story you are pitching.

How often, though, have you found yourself pitching a press release that contains little or no news, or calling reporters about a concept that hasn’t been worked out well enough to be interesting? If there’s no story there, save your breath for another day. Don’t waste a reporter’s time with a non-story … or he or she just might not take your call when you’ve got something really good to offer.