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From a PR Perspective: How to Develop/Maintain Relationships with Journalists

Posted At: January 1, 2008 9:45 AM
by Alexandra Weaver and Megan Fraizer 

They want information to be accurate, delivered in a timely manner and provided in a simple format. Who are they? They are journalists. For public relations professionals, journalists are key to getting the message out to important audiences. Media coverage can increase the public’s awareness of an organization’s culture. On the other hand, journalists can be a public relations practitioner’s fear, as it is sometimes hard to understand what the media wants to distribute and what the public wants to hear. We interviewed Dr. Bill Keller, journalism professor at The University of Alabama, and Deborah Lane, executive director of public relations at The University of Alabama, to get perspectives from both sides of the relationship. Here are Ms. Lane’s responses.

Q: What is the most effective way to pitch a story to a journalist? Why?

DL: Do a bit of research prior to the pitch, to make sure you understand and can articulate why this specific journalist should be interested in this article. Ask yourself, how does it tie in with his/her current responsibilities or interests and the primary focus of the media outlet? In other words, if the publication focuses on working women, how does this story idea fit in with this publication’s area of interest? If the reporter has the health beat, what about this story is different, unusual or newsworthy? Make sure you have your facts and interesting sources lined up, so you can quickly connect the journalist to them. Be aware of deadlines! And, even when you send a press release, follow up with a phone call or e-mail.

Q: How do you “think like a journalist?”

DL: Journalists like the unusual, the unlikely, the heart-warming and the controversial. They tend to think of things as black or white, with very few nuances and shades of gray. Be aware of deadlines and writing styles for the media outlets you deal with. Remember that broadcast journalists think visually. All journalists want interesting sources who can articulate key points in “sound bites” and with little or no jargon. They are looking for a different angle even when covering the same story.

Q: How could a PR practitioner damage a relationship with a journalist?

DL: By not being honest and not being accessible. Always do what you say you’re going to do. Meet deadlines; let the reporter know if you’re going to be late. Don’t consistently give one media outlet the story before you release it to everyone else. It’s okay to give scoops, but spread them around.

Q: What are important tactics to remember when developing relationships between a journalist and PR practitioner?

DL: Know their audience and your message. Be honest and upfront. If you don’t know, say so; don’t ever speculate. Understand the role each plays in the relationship: public relations is the source of information that journalists need, and journalists get the main message across. Don’t take things personally. Give reporters timely information in the way they use it—in sound bites and good quotes and visuals. Simplify charts, data, etc. Never assume anything is “off the record”—“off the record” just means they have to have someone else say it. Stay calm, positive and confident.

Q: Is it important to rehearse the delivery of your message before speaking to a journalist?

DL: Absolutely! Write down your key points and practice saying them. Hearing yourself answer questions will help you refine them even more. And, you can make sure you are getting your organization’s message across effectively.

Q: Is there a checklist you go through before or after an interview with a journalist?

 I always write down my key points and think through my response to possible questions. Even if you need to do the interview on the spot, take a few minutes to gather your thoughts first. It will help you stay “on message” and make sure you’re presenting your organization’s message effectively. And, writing it down helps you feel organized and more comfortable answering questions.

Q: What are some standard methods of preparation you use before interviews with the press?

DL: I do as much research as I have time for, so I know and understand as much about the situation as I can. That includes talking to subject matter experts, drafting key messages and developing responses to potential questions. I draft questions based on how I think the reporter will ask them, so I’m prepared for worst-case scenarios. If it’s the first time I’ve worked with a reporter, I do some online research to find out what topics he/she typically writes about (and how) as well as the tone/perspective and audience of the media outlet. I also make sure I understand the strategic message my organization wants to send. 

Q: How do you make sure the information presented to a journalist is newsworthy?

 If you’re not sure, you aren’t thinking in terms of “who cares?” and “so what?”  Answers to these questions can help you determine whether it’s a mass market story or a targeted one. It is important to understand the journalist’s media outlet and what kinds of articles he or she tends to write about and be interested in their style of writing. You should also understand your PR goal and how the information fulfills your organization’s strategic goals. Make sure you have interesting subject matter experts for the reporter to talk to, photographs and video, facts and data ready to share. It goes without saying that you have to be timely in your pitch.

What are some good tips for checking out sources to be certain they are reliable?

DL: Google the source and see what he or she has already been quoted as saying or writing. If you’re the PR person, talk to the source yourself and see how he or she presents information; this is also a good time to help them with their own key messages. Sources should be interesting and articulate, positive and credible. Make sure there are no controversies surrounding this person that can get in the way of the message you want him or her to deliver. Make sure they know the message you want them to deliver!

How do you avoid the reply “no comment” to a question from a journalist?

DL: I really don’t have a problem saying “no comment” when a comment will only further inflame an already bad situation, or when the question is the “do you still beat your wife” kind you can’t win. Sometimes, the best thing a PR person can do is let a story die by not adding fuel to the fire. So, if “no comment” makes the most sense strategically, don’t be afraid to say it. These days, the “power” of the media is being diluted, because there are so many other ways to get your message across to key stakeholders. Reporters don’t want to hear “no comment,” but when it’s true – it’s the best answer. If you’re not comfortable saying “no comment,” answer with a key message, regardless of the question.

Q: What is your strategy when dealing with a journalist who calls when you aren’t prepared or if they are calling to cover bad news about your organization?

DL: I ask what their questions are and what their deadline is, and tell them I will get back to them as quickly as possible. Then, I gather as much information as I can, draft my talking points based on my organization’s key messages and develop answers to potential questions. If I can’t get the information by the deadline, I let the reporter know as quickly as possible, even if it’s during the initial call. Be as proactive as you can when it’s bad news, because the information will get out anyway; you want to shape the way it’s perceived and covered as much as you can. Remember, the best way to neutralize a negative is to mention it yourself first.

Q: How do you handle a situation in which you feel a journalist has misrepresented you?

DL: Most reporters want to know when they’ve made an error, and you want them to have an accurate understanding of any process or situation for the next story they write. Even if the situation doesn’t call for a printed correction or retraction, I call or e-mail the reporter, and provide a clarification or correction. Normally, I “assume” I wasn’t clear enough and that the error was an innocent one on their part. However, if it happens repeatedly, respond to the journalist only in writing; e-mail makes the process easier.

Q: If you could give one piece of advice to future PR practitioners, what would it be? Why?

DL: To me, PR is the process of influencing attitudes and behavior. To make sure you get your organization’s message across, whether you are proactively pitching a story or responding to questions, you have to know what those key messages are. So, articulate them and then make sure you incorporate them into every opportunity you are given. Key messages can help you respond appropriately and effectively in most every situation. Key messages can always be your answer, regardless of the question. It is always important to remember that your organization is your client. The media represent one of the vehicles you use to get your key messages out to your key stakeholders. Regardless of what they would have you think, reporters are not your clients.

If you would like to get the answers from Dr. Keller’s perspective click here.
Do you have any tips for building and keeping relationships with the
media? Or would you like to share any personal experiences you have had
with the media?

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