PR Freak Outs: Keeping Calm When Dealing With Reporters

There’s really nothing funnier than a PR person freaking out. If you’re a journalist, that is. Public relations folk and journalists are very similar. Where journalists and PR people freak out is where the difference between the two beasts really becomes noticeable. Journalists freak out at editors for any number of reasons (think unreasonable deadlines or expectations). People in the public relations industry tend to freak out, well, a lot.

A recent story I wrote concerned a deal between two companies. The public relations contact for Company A understood that I was writing the story, cooperation or not. I gave him some time to come up with a strategy to work with me on the story. I held off on calling the public relations contact for Company B.

Time went by and the PR person from Company A still wasn’t calling me back, which was fine with me. My story was basically done. I put a call into the PR person from Company B and that’s when the freaking out happened.

The PR person from Company B was not happy to get my call. Even worse, she made a huge mistake by knowing what the call was about and admitting to it. You see, if there was no deal, like all involved wanted me to believe, the PR person from Company B wouldn’t know I was calling because the PR person from Company A wouldn’t have had a reason to call them. In effect, this reaction offered me further, albeit tacit, confirmation of the deal.

The freak out went on behind the scenes when I was off the phone; don’t ask how I know, take it as proof that journalists can really have sources everywhere. There was yelling, screaming, and threatening. People were upset over nothing, really, but sometimes when you’re taken by surprise, things can get out of hand.

When it was all said and done, the story worked out fine for everyone. But there are some lessons to draw from this incident.

1. Control your emotions: When you freak out, you show a journalist fear. We’re like tigers going in for the kill; when we hear fear in your voice, the bloodlust intensifies. We’re also unsympathetic in most cases because we have editors that make us feel like crap if we don’t get the story. If we’re pressing you on an issue then chances are we have the upperhand and you’re not going to be able to kill our story.

Some advice I should be shot for even telling you: Threaten to give the story to another publication. But play fair and offer to embargo the story at a time when it’s appropriate. An example: “If you’re going to write this today, I’m calling the Los Angeles Times and giving them the official news. But if you wait a week, I’ll give it to you exclusively.” This proposal would be off the record, of course.

2. Have a plan in place: If you’re dealing with another public relations firm or company, have a plan in place to deal with pre-announcement PR. When it was obvious to me that the two companies’ public relations departments had spoken about my inquiry, it was apparent that I had my facts straight. If they didn’t want to admit to the deal, they both should have told me “no comment,” having made that arrangement ahead of time.

3. Play ball on background: I’m going to write the story no matter what, so why not play ball? It doesn’t have to be on the record; you can give me some background information if I’ve gotten something wrong or you don’t like how I’m going to spin it. It’s better to get your side across, even on background, than to have something inaccurate or negative published about your company.

I know things don’t always go your way in the public relations world, but you have to remember to remain calm. Journalists thrive on getting information out of people in any number of ways and one way we do it is by causing PR people to freak out. You know the old saying: “Give ’em enough rope, and they’ll hang themselves.”

This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (, a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit:

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