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Turning the Tables: A Journalist Talks Public Relations

A while back, a friend who works in the public relations industry cornered me with a few questions. The following discussion about public relations and the media takes a little peek into how the two intertwined industries relate to each other.

Q: Would you ever consider moving to the dark side of public relations?

A: Totally. I think all burnt out journalists should give PR a spin. It’s sort of like a criminal becoming a cop. I know how you guys think and I know how journalists think. I think being a public relations consultant would be fun, but I’d only want to do corporate communications or damage control. I would not want to actually pitch journalists because I know how difficult it is.

Q: Do you honor a non-disclosure agreement or an information embargo, or are PR reps wasting their time sending you those things?

BS: Most reporters will honor an information and it’s not a waste of time. However, the news has to be worthy of an information embargo and the public relations contact has to play fair. You can’t embargo the news to a dozen media outlets because it cheapens the newsworthiness. Why should I agree to an information embargo if you’re giving it to everyone? Is it really an embargo then? It’s just a limited-distribution press release. Use the embargo wisely if it you want it honored.

Q: I have worked with a lot of public relations consultants — while at an agency with colleagues, working with other agencies on client projects, and when I was in-house — and the huge disparity in competence amazes me. Have you ever exacted revenge on a public relations consultant, either in print or by just yelling at them?

A: I’ll say that I do know journalists who have purposely written stories to exact revenge on public relations contacts. To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never done it. On my old web site I would, from time to time, call out PR people for doing stupid things. And in PR Fuel I write about dumb public relations moves and people I consider to be bad PR practitioners, but I protect their identity to avoid embarrassment.

Q: How off-the-record can a public relations consultant be with you as a journalist?

A: Off-the-record is basically your prime spin zone. Use off-the-record to set the record straight, but understand that whatever you say, it will probably end up in print. A good reporter will ask whether or not the “information is for publication.” Even if you say no, a good reporter will take the information to another source and get it verified.

Q: Can public relations consultants really be friends with journalists, or do we need to be on guard?

BS: Like any relationship, there will reach a point when you’re truly friends and both sides can drop the professional guard. Some of my best friends are public relations consultants and one reason is because we have common professional interests. Once you buddy up to a journalist, there’s a lot of quid pro quo that can happen.

Q: Are there a lot of perks with journalism? On the public relations side, you get the shwag from trade shows, and some client-related goodies if it’s a consumer goods account. But with the guidelines in journalism being so strict, do you get ANY goodies?

BS: Most media outlets have rules about getting gifts and such; I’ve never personally been told that I can’t accept a gift. Truth be told, there’s nothing you could give me that would sway my opinion of your company or product anyway. Free stuff is great, but having dignity, scruples, and a job is better. I get a lot of books, CDs, T-shirts, etc. Stuff like that. I give a lot of the T-shirts to charity, and I basically dole out the other stuff to friends if I don’t want it. One of the cool things about covering the tech industry though is that I get to test out a lot of gadgets, even though I never write about ’em, just the actual companies.

Q: Has there ever been a time that you held off on writing a negative article about a company, because you liked the public relations contact or the company?

A: Truth be told, I don’t remember any incident where I held back on a negative article because I liked the PR person or the company. I’ve definitely been spun out of writing negative articles. But in those cases, it was always a matter of weighing the facts or perhaps changing my opinion when presented with new facts. There are plenty of public relations/journalist relationships that evolve to the point where a negative article can be squashed. I make very clear to public relations contacts what the tone of my articles will be. If it’s negative, if it’s an attack — I let them know. I don’t want to be accused of misleading someone. And there’s no harm in asking a journalist about the tone or purpose of the article. You should always ask.

Q: Journalism has taken many lumps since the Jayson Blair incident, Stephen Glass, et al. Have you noticed that you have had any trust problems? Have you noticed that it’s harder to get stories?

A: In the immediate aftermath of the Jayson Blair incident, I did notice some people were unwilling to talk to me. I haven’t experienced any problems with my normal sources and I really haven’t had a difficult time cultivating new sources. Where I’m having the most problems is in interviewing “normal” people for trend pieces and such. I just did an article on a new technology that is gaining consumer traction and I interviewed about dozen people using this technology. Four or five of them expressed concerns that I’d misquote them. I don’t get those type of concerns from public relations sources.

Q: In your opinion, are there media outlets that public relations departments shouldn’t pitch, or is any potential positive publicity worth pitching over?

A: Every media outlet is worth pitching. Pitch high, pitch low, pitch far, pitch wide. You never know which media outlet has power on a certain day. It all depends on who is reading or watching. Don’t get hung up on a “target audience.”. If you want to reach teen girls, yes, pitch Seventeen magazine. But you should also pitch the Wall Street Journal because those teens’ parents may be reading. I sometimes find that the best publicity comes from the most obscure media outlets.

Q: During the dot-com boom, a lot of mainstream media outlets seemed to buy the hype. A lot of those columnists and reporters seemed to have walked away from the results of the dot-com boom unscathed, but the bankers have been vilified. Why were media outlets able to walk away from the dot-com implosion unscathed?

BS: Media outlets will always be under the microscope, and rightfully so. Journalists are essentially public servants, like it or not. The dot-com boom probably was a low point in how the modern press covers the business world. A lot of people in the press lost their jobs because of the bust that followed  dot-com boom. You’ll also notice that as the market turned south, CNBC’s viewership declined and circulation of business magazines and such dropped dramatically. That was the payback.

But I think the biggest damage was done to the public relations industry because you guys were the ones telling the story. I know a lot of my ideas about PR people came from dealing with the dot-com flacks, seeing how easy it was to sell a piece of garbage and spin it as a diamond in the rough. I think a lot of the heat the public relations world continues to take is because of what happened in the dot-com boom era. The whole thing was an economic disaster; in the end, there was nothing very funny about it. The hype was driven by the media, which was driven by public relations, so whose fault is it? Everyones.

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/.

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