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When the Public Relations/Journalism Relationship Goes Very Wrong

I received a very strange voicemail message from a journalist today, laced with hints of blackmail and future slander. Cool and calm, the journalist was sincere, threatening, filled with an inflated sense of self-importance, and sometimes downright strange. He levied accusations but talked about how he enjoyed working me. The following is a story about how the relationship between a journalist and a public relations person can degenerate into something potentially dangerous: the threat-maker and the threatened.

I realize the following will seem vague, but there is no upside associated with revealing this journalist’s identity or his employer. The journalist’s voicemail message–and the ensuing email I sent–ended a three-week trial. At times I tried to ignore the matter. At times I got so frustrated that I wanted to tell him off. He complained about our “disagreement” to a mutual professional contact. Other times he plead his case to me.

The outcome is still up in the air as of this writing. Will the journalist let the issue rest? Will he make good on his threats? Will this thing come back and bite me in the butt at some point?

What I do know is that this journalist has the power to reach a wider audience than I do. He gets the first shot, if he wants to take it, in a public war. He has the credibility because he has the by-line and the major media outlet backing. What do I have besides a copy of his voicemail message making threats. Oh, right. I guess I do have the upper hand.

As a journalist, I was threatened more than once by a public relations contact. I never took those threats seriously, and neither do most journalists. You get accustomed to upsetting people and hearing them threaten to go to your editor or superior. In fact, a police officer friend and I had a running joke where we tallied up how many times each month someone threatened to get us terminated for just doing our jobs. (He usually won.)

But I don’t know if I’ve ever really been threatened while doing public relations work. The biggest threat that I can recall a journalist levying at me is that he wouldn’t pick up a story I’d pitched. That’s not really a threat, just a fact of being in the public relations business. In this case, the journalist is actually threatening to ruin our reputation because he’s unhappy that I decided not to give him something for free. (Imagine a consumer electronics manufacturer not wanting to give a journalist a review product and you’ll get the idea.)

It’s really a no-win situation for me at this point, unless the journalist continues to push the issue. I don’t gain anything from giving into the journalist’s demands because it’s not in the best interests of my company. I also don’t gain anything by trying to embarrass this journalist or get him fired. If he wants to be a jerk, so be it. I’m sure his bosses already know. At this point, it’s best if I just walk away. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
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Speaking of my company’s public relations efforts, one of my co-workers made a very important decision today. He has decided to wait several weeks before launching a grassroots campaign.

“There are some tweaks and things I want to get done before we go out and try to drum up some exposure,” he told me. “I’d rather just wait.”

It was so refreshing to hear this, especially from someone who does not have any public relations experience and who was very excited about launching a campaign. My co-worker obviously understands that there is no point in launching a public relations campaign if you don’t feel that the product is “ready for prime time.” It’s a lesson many people need to learn.

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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