Surfing the web this morning, I came across an interesting interview on Talking Biz News with Hope Heyman, a senior vice president at Edelman. Heyman has been in the public relations business for more than 25 years and she also worked as a business journalist. The interview touches on a number of facets regarding the relationship between public relations practitioners and business journalists, and Heyman’s insights should be required reading for any PR department or newsroom.
Heyman says that, overall, the relationship between the two sides is “becoming… more distant” as technology replaces face-to-face meetings. She also says that the fact that fewer journalists are going into public relations–and the fact that fewer PR people are going into journalism–has helped widen the relationship gap.
“Former reporters are particularly good at counseling clients on strategies involving how to put their best foot forward when approaching the media; and reporters sometimes find themselves being pitched by junior public relations people who don’t understand the needs and deadlines of the press,” Heyman said.
I certainly agree on the latter point; as a journalist, I had no interest in dealing with junior public relations contacts, and as someone who sometimes utilizes outside public relations resources, I feel much more comfortable with someone who has a journalism background.
But I don’t agree with Heyman’s theory that the relationship between public relations and business journalism is becoming more distant. I believe that technology has helped strengthen the relationship because email and instant messaging allows for more informal communication during the workday and a quicker response. Likewise, the fact that many people now deal with the media only via email strengthens the relationship because there is less chance of creating a rift by misquoting someone or using an off-the-record comment in a story.
In my opinion, the relationship between public relations professionals and business journalists will always be dysfunctional to a degree, especially where public companies are concerned. Where smaller and private companies are concerned, I find that there often exists no relationship. (Heyman laments this fact as well and has some great insight on the issue.)
The 24-hour news cycle and improved access to information for investors has created a more confrontational relationship between public relations departments and business journalists. This is especially true for high-profile companies that run into controversy. (And let’s be honest here, most companies will find themselves in the midst of a controversy at some point.)
These days, business journalists are more apt to play down good news, or to try to hedge good news with cautious third-party quotes. This is a symptom of the post-dot-com bubble and post-Enron era, where journalists still catch flack for not doing a better job of shedding light on shoddy business plans and wrongdoing. I probably spend an hour a day talking to journalists who are looking for a negative data point or comment, driven by editors and complaints of the media being “soft” on public companies in the past.
On the flipside, private companies often find themselves ignored unless they are doing something deemed “sketchy.” This is somewhat by design, however, as public companies are mandated to release certain information and it is in their best interest to help manage their stock price by dealing with the media on a more regular basis.
Nonetheless, it is difficult for privately held companies to get publicity. I rarely covered private companies because I felt that my audience was primarily people on Wall Street, who care little about private companies until they’re ready to go public. Likewise, I always wanted my stories to have a degree of “actionability,” and that’s a hard thing to do when you deal with a company that has absolute control over information flow. It’s hard to get a private company to talk about revenues and profits unless they’re positioning themselves to go public.
One other issue that Heyman spoke about that I found interesting was a complaint she had.
“In response to a pitch e-mail or call from me (not from my client), taking the story idea, but bypassing me completely and contacting the client directly,” Heyman replied when asked what are some of the things that business journalists do that bother public relations consultants.
But as I’m sure Heyman knows, this is just something a public relations consultant must deal with. As a journalist, I routinely bypassed external public relations consultants once they pitched me, mostly because their job was done in my opinion. They pitched and secured the story, and as a journalist, if I’m writing a story about Microsoft, I want to talk to company executives at Microsoft, not someone at their public relations firm.
The best way to deal with this issue is to communicate to the client the importance of keeping members of the public relations staff involved in the story process from start to finish. Let the client know that one reason why the journalist wants to bypass the public relations staff is to deal with company executives who have no public relations experience. Convince clients that public relations staffers needs to run the show because that’s why they’re getting paid. The logic should make sense to even the most daft client.
It’s good to see a publication such as Talking Biz News, which appeals mostly to business journalists, shed some light on how a PR person views the public relations/business journalist relationship. It’s a complicated relationship, but by talking about it, maybe both sides can make it work better.
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/.