I called Emily Lenzner because I wanted to get inside a public relations pro’s brain. Lenzner has been a spokesperson for Tom Golisano, an Independence Party candidate in New York. She was once in corporate communications for internet and technology companies. And she was also once a television news producer in Seattle. She knows public relations. She knows the media. She knows plenty of tips for public relations pros when it comes to dealing with journalists. And vice versa.
“It’s a no win situation,” Lenzner told me when I asked about her biggest grip with the media.
Lenzner says that working the media is sometimes a daunting task because you have to deal with so many individual personalities. She doesn’t like to cold call or pitch stories. “I like to keep people informed about what my client is doing and hope that one day they’ll come calling me looking for news,” she said.
It’s worked. I chose Lenzner as one of my public relations subjects because I’ve written stories about her clients, or companies, in the past. I wondered why I’d focused on her PR clients, and soon realized that Lenzner’s approach met my needs as a journalist. Reporters want to be informed by a public relations contact, not annoyed.
“The [journalists] I work with regularly, it took me awhile to figure out who is who, and figure out what they want from me,” Lenzer said. “Some would tell me to simply keep them posted and I would and it would usually pay off.”
Lenzner said she researches journalists and caters pitches to their needs. She says that when she was in the media she felt she was too nice to public relations departments and that gave them an open door to send blanket pitches. “It takes more time and energy, but it’s worth it in the end to really target the press that you’re trying to reach,” she said.
Laura Goldberg, who does public relations for New York-based Trylon Communications, told me that her biggest challenge is getting journalists to take public relations seriously.
“[Journalists] are bombarded by PR people they don’t know,” she said. “[Journalists] look at us as one huge entity and they need to break through the misperception. Once I break through, they’ll take my calls and return my emails.”
But Goldberg says that the public relations industry needs to do a better job of teaching its young: “Bigger PR agencies don’t give employees time to learn and find out about subject matter. That’s self-defeating.”
A public relations manager at a major firm, who asked that their name not be used, agrees with Goldberg.
“It was insane when I first took this job. My bosses threw a press release at me and told me to pitch it and I didn’t have a clue what the press release was about. They gave me no time to learn who my client was or learn the particular beat. And when I failed, I was told to shape up. My bosses failed me I felt. But we worked through it and one of my jobs now is to train new people about our clients and the beats.”
Goldberg says one of her tactics is to target influential journalists in a sector and then do “mass bombardments” through press release services or her own email list.
“A great PR person will be able to pick and choose between mass blasting and targeting,” she said. “You have to be savvy enough and know the media well enough to realize what kernels out of news you’re going to use and who you’re going to use on it.”
A Vice President of Corporate Communications for a Fortune 500 company says that when the company feels it needs positive publicity, it employs a carrot and stick philosophy, dishing out news “kernels” in hopes of getting something back.
“There is always news, but it’s how you utilize the news that ultimately decides your relationship with the media. We respond to every press inquiry because you never know when you’ll make a new friend and you’ll never know when someone will be willing to listen to your side of story. We’ll trade news with a journalist in the hopes it pays off when we have something good happening that we feel warrants more coverage than the media will be willing to give us. It’s a game and you have to learn how to play it.”
While that strategy won’t work for every company or firm, it’s good to keep in mind. Since they control the flow of information, public relations professionals can keep a stranglehold on crucial info, good or bad. Using such information wisely will usually pay off through better relations with the media.
After spending a day speaking with industry vets about public relations, I have a better understanding of the challenges they face. The most interesting aspect for me was how people consistently told me they feel the battle is won not on the phone or in person, but behind the scenes.
“If you don’t do your research and if you don’t take your time, you’re not going to get the job done,” a Vice President at a major public relations firm told me. “And at the end of the day your client is going to walk out the door or you’re going to be out of a job.
“The people who give the PR industry a bad name are the people who don’t realize or accept a simple fact: we control the information, but the media brings it to the public,” he continued. “Don’t antagonize the media, but don’t kiss their ass. There’s a happy medium and you get there by learning, researching and studying. And if you’re not willing to do that, then you’re not going to be in this business long.”
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.