Business of News: Five Things Journalists and PR People Should Know about Each Other

By: Tim Gallagher
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Joni Mitchell said she was on a plane looking down at clouds when she wrote the timeless folk song, “Both Sides Now” that’s been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Tori Amos.

I spent 29 years as a journalist and the last nine on the public relations side and I can fairly conclude both sides too often have an unfair and inaccurate view of the other.

Some journalists think the PR person would mislead or outright lie to get a favorable piece written about their client. Some PR people think every journalists comes to work every day with an agenda. Neither view is true. With that in mind, let me offer five things each side wishes the other side knew.

What PR professional wish journalists knew:

  1. Print journalists are not as important to PR people as they used to be. This kills me and most of the former print people now working in public relations. But our clients are exploring direct messages to the audience they want to reach through social media.
  2. “Off the record” really means this conversation never happened. Most of us have a lot of sympathy for how difficult your job is and we can often tell you “off the record” what’s happening and how it might play out. I had one reporter use the information I provided as a “hypothetical question” to the source. I am done with that reporter.
  3. Don’t discredit information from me just because I work for one of the sources. I have often had reporters shut notebooks when I offer additional background or sources of information. In order to pitch you, I prepared myself with background. I often know a lot about the topic. I was frustrated with a reporter who continuously told me she knew all about water issues in California because she covered water issues in another state. She refused offers to help with background. Her story was so inaccurate I had a difficult time getting my client to talk to a reporter for six months. I want you to get it right. That helps both of us.
  4. A PR professional is never encouraging the source you want to interview to hide out. Our advice routinely is to “get ahead of the story.” We are always advising our clients to do an interview with a trusted reporter or at the very least release a statement.
  5. Your reputation really matters. The first question our client is going to ask us is, “How can you expect me to trust the press?” Most PR professionals know the roster of local reporters and who can be trusted to do their homework and get it right. We prepare our clients for the tough questions you will and should ask. But we also monitor the results and when you have a reputation for being tough and fair, you’re most likely to get cooperation from the source.

What journalists wish PR professionals knew:

  1. You need to start every conversation with, “Are you on deadline?” or “Is this a good time to talk?” The deadline game has changed, of course, but you can engage us in a conversation about your pitch only when I don’t have editors starting me down.
  2. Know what I do for a living and would you please read the last four or five stories I’ve written. Nothing infuriates me more than a pitch that has nothing to do with my area of coverage. It also shows disrespect for my work when you haven’t even read what I write for a living.
  3. Understand that my job today involves writing for a print deadline but often also demands that I tweet or create another social media version of the story. Read our website. Follow me on Twitter. See how I do my job these days and talk to me about how this might help.
  4. Don’t stand next to my source and coach him or her. Yeah, I get it. Your client might not be used to interviews, but putting words in his or her mouth is not going to help this story.
  5. Don’t assume this is going to be a hit piece. Or that I have an agenda from my editor. It’s fine to ask me about the aim of what I am writing, when the story will run, and other questions about the direction and timing of the story. But it’s infuriating when you assume I am “out to get you.” I earn respect in my field for being fair and accurate, not for doing hit pieces.

tim-gallagher-new-headshot_r2_webTim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at tim@the2020network.com.

Published: December 15, 2016

4 thoughts on “Business of News: Five Things Journalists and PR People Should Know about Each Other

  • December 15, 2016 at 7:36 am
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    Good advice here but I think Tim misses an important segment of the industry by failing to include trade journals even though they can be vastly more important to his PR clients than the mainstream press.

    Reply
    • December 18, 2016 at 4:13 pm
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      Hi Jeff: Thanks for the kind words. I do use trade journals frequently in this new profession, but as this site deals primarily with the newspaper industry, I didn’t address that segment. I tend to agree with you that trade journals are more influential on behalf of certain clients.
      Tim

      Reply
  • December 16, 2016 at 7:22 am
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    I would hope the goal of every journalist is to report the truth – period. As a journalist I am geared that direction. I am not there to promote anyone or slant the truth in favor or against a specific agenda. Too often I get people standing in the way of the truth or pushing towards a “sin of omission” to make themselves or their project or own agenda look better or keep themselves from looking bad. My job isn’t to sell what someone wants – it is to report facts. I resent it when a publisher tells me to NOT print all the truth and leave things out because an advertiser is involved and it might offend them. If people don’t want the truth printed, then perhaps they should examine what they themselves are involved in that they don’t want in print.

    Reply
  • February 20, 2017 at 2:25 pm
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    I did a freelance stint at IBM after working at The Bergen Record and realized that many PR people love to do work for journalists because it gives them material for an activity report. Since then, when I need some factual info that a company might have, I ask for it, politely. Often PR people are happy to supply reports or an appropriate source and can be really helpful.

    Reply

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