Media relations – Lessons from both sides of the fence

1 October 2015

I did my tertiary training and my first four jobs out of university in journalism, so I still sometimes think of myself as a journalist in a PR consultant’s body. I like to think that perspective affords me a certain diplomacy when it comes to navigating the two intersecting worlds of PR – journalists and clients.

Like any diplomatic mission, both parties want the relationship to work in the best way possible. In order for this to happen, both sides need to take certain aspects on board to achieve harmony between what they need, and what the other side needs.

With that in mind, here are my top three take-outs from working both as a journalist and in PR.

What do PRs need to consider when dealing with journalists?   

1. Emails are often better than calls.

For most of the journalists I’ve worked with (and there will be exceptions), email pitches are a much less intrusive way to get someone’s attention. If the pitch is of interest, the journalist can flag it and get back to you at a less busy time in their day.

In most of the media offices I worked in, calls from a PR were often met with the same eye-rolls and sighing an average person might reserve for a telemarketer. When a call is necessary, I like to have a cheat sheet handy with each publication’s deadline, to ensure I’m not calling them at an inconvenient time.

2. When a journalist is interested, make it easy for them.

If a journalist is interested in interviewing your client, then doesn’t hear back from you for three days about a time, it doesn’t leave the best impression. Today’s journalists are usually working on several stories a day, and need to plan their time in advance.

Obviously there are situations where this can’t be helped, as spokespeople are often busy and it can be difficult to nail down availability. In this case, keep the journalist in the loop with regular updates so they don’t think you’ve gone silent on them.

3. Be available on interview day.

Agencies have different policies on their involvement in client interviews – some will facilitate in every instance, some on a case-by-case basis and some not at all. If you’re not facilitating an interview, make sure you’re available at the time it takes place, and give the journalist your contact details in case anything goes wrong.

Scheduling mistakes will happen and journalists are sympathetic if they understand the situation.  But if they’re left calling a number that’s ringing out, or sitting in a coffee shop for half an hour, it leaves a pretty poor impression of the PR they’re dealing with.

What do journalists need to consider when dealing with PRs?

1. Event RSVPs are more important than you realise. 

As a PR, there is nothing worse than standing at the door of an event, realising that half the journalists you reported to the client were attending are not going to show up.

I understand why this happens. As a journalist, I would RSVP to a PR’s event to guarantee myself a spot, then decide on the day whether I actually wanted to attend. I assumed no-one would notice my absence so didn’t feel the need to inform the PR that I was no longer attending.

I can tell you that the PR – and the client – certainly will notice if you don’t attend. If something comes up please do let us know – it’s not the non-attendance, but the not knowing that makes things especially awkward.

2. Going straight to the source isn’t always best

Some journalists avoid dealing with a spokesperson’s PR for interview requests if they can help it, thinking it will be quicker to cut out the middle man. More often than not if a journalist goes direct to the CEO of a company for comment, their request will either be lost among the hundreds of emails that CEO gets every day, or will be forwarded back to their PR department anyway.

Just as it makes sense to go to HR for a salary issue, or Accounts for an unpaid bill, if you contact the person whose main job is to get you your interview, there’s a better chance that request will be resolved as quickly as possible.

3. PRs and journalists are on the same team

As a journalist you sometimes feel like PR consultants are there to hinder rather than help you do your job. It’s important to remember we’re all trying to achieve the same outcome – a good story.

This can go both ways – don’t be afraid to give feedback if you feel a PR agency consistently pitches you content way out of left field. At the same time, if you want the best results from the PR and their client, give them the best chance to deliver for you. Giving advance notice of an interview, and exactly what you want to cover, will help us ensure the conversation is relevant and newsworthy.

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