PR: The Hand That Feeds You

This is part of a series on how to Be a Better Journo. It’s intended to shame my colleagues in the blogosphere, solicit ideas from my peers on how we can all improve, and help guide noobs and youngsters into creating better digital journalism. [tweetmeme source=”jolieodell” only_single=false]

I have no small love for PR people. (Incidentally, my love for PR people springs from my hatred of bad pitches.)

You see, there are some really wonderful PR ladies and dudes out there — people who can pitch concisely, handle rejection gracefully, communicate details accurately, and navigate between professional and personal relationships with integrity.

Speaking of integrity, we journalists have a strange and contradictory relationship with public relations professionals. We often rely on them for information about companies — from Fortune 500 institutions to tiny little baby startups — and they represent this weird gateway between us and the actual information held by the company. Having worked on the other side of that gateway, I know that even some PR folks don’t get the full picture or have all the information a journalist might want to know.

So there’s naturally a bit of antagonism inherent in this relationship: We journos always want more than the PR person can give. We’re always looking for the dirty underbelly — the concealment of which is the heart and soul of the PR person’s job.

Then again, we also often have a very cordial, mutually beneficial relationship with some PR folks. We get embargoed news, exclusives, access to really fascinating interview subjects, and a great deal more. They take great care to package media materials and press releases just for our convenience and use.

And while I will always continue to offer my own brand of tough-love advice to PR folks on how best to work with journalists, I must also flip the coin and give some advice to my journalist colleagues.

1. Do Your Own Damn Reporting
We are busy friggin’ people, and our news cycle is a rapidly spinning carousel. But we must resist all temptations to treat a press release like a spoon-fed blog post. We must identify and carefully question “spin” as we encounter it; we must respond to releases with questions of our own choosing; we must find our own angles; we must never, ever copy/paste. Verify any claims and double-check any facts before you go to press.

2. Treat a Release Like One Side of the Story
We must also stand firm when it comes to reporting facts accurately — even if that means reporting facts our PR contact considers unflattering. If you get backlash for this, ask the PR person what he or she would realistically do in your shoes. You have an obligation to tell all sides of a story — not just the company’s side.

3. Avoid Nepotism
Perhaps most of all, don’t take a story just because you’re friends with the PR person who’s pitching it. Don’t even set up that expectation in the minds of the PR people you know. It is hypothetically possible to be buddies with the people who pitch you — heck, you might be on the other end of that transaction someday, yourself. But a personal friendship doesn’t equate to a professional guarantee, no matter what. Rejecting a friend’s request sucks, but if you’re going to befriend PR people, you’re going to have to learn how to do just that.

At the same time, we can’t personally or professionally afford to bite the hand that feeds us all this information in the first place. As a group, we need to do our best to treat these people right. Here are a few pointers PR people I know have brought up to me recently and in the past:

  • Return emails. Not responding to a pitch or inquiry is the #1 pet peeve of the PR folks I surveyed. Even if you’re not interested in covering a story, don’t be afraid to politely turn it down. You can do this courteously by writing something like, “I’m going to pass on this particular release, but please keep me in mind if you have news in the future.”
  • Reach out to them when you need expert commentary. Especially for stand-alone PR firms, your PR friends will likely know a few good sources of information in even the most esoteric fields.
  • Don’t be a bitch. If a company sends you a release, try not to turn it against them and write something completely nasty or frame it inaccurately. I’ve been guilty of this a few times, I’m sad to say; not only does it burn bridges for you as a journo, but nine times out of ten, it also does nothing whatsoever to help your readers.
  • Give credit where credit is due. Link back appropriately.
  • Don’t doctor quotations or use them out of context.
  • Get your facts straight — misquoting and misspelling are awfully common, it seems.
  • Don’t. Break. An embargo. Just don’t do it. Fucker.
  • Every dog has his day when it comes to exclusives. So don’t get pissy when that day isn’t your day. Your PR person is trying to be fair to a wide range of news outlets; your turn for an exclusive will come.

In other words, act like a professional and a human being when dealing with these folks. You’re not the be-all, end-all, high-and-mighty Grand Poobah of Media, so get the chip off your shoulder and stop treating PR people like your inferiors. But also remember that they work for the Company and you work for the People.

It’s tough work, but I think we can all do a better job at it.

If you want to be a better journo, treat PR people with professional courtesy and journalistic skepticism.

7 thoughts on “PR: The Hand That Feeds You

  1. Great post. I think one problem is assuming that these are two “sides” at loggerheads (not that you did, but just in general, it’s usually positioned that way). Instead of two opposing sides, it’s more like: there are the people who want to report the information that makes the most sense for their beat, and there are the people who have some of that information. The latter (aka PR folks and whoever else helps coordinate info) NEED to be just as professional in their goings-about. They should understand every individual writer like the back of their hands, and only come to them with relevant information that makes sense. If you can do that, then the mistakes are just that: mistakes. And not mistaken for overall ‘bad PR.’

    If that was the starting point, then bad PR would just be bad PR and there wouldn’t be a huge rant every time it happens.

    Communicating stories is the underlying premise, and everyone involved needs to understand, respect and operate professionally with one another in telling that story.

  2. thank you, thank you, thank you!!

    I’m so sick of reading all these stories about all the ways PR people piss off journalists and blacklists and whatever, I’m really glad to see a journalist stand up for the other side for a change.

    My personal favourite:

    “# Return emails. Not responding to a pitch or inquiry is the #1 pet peeve of the PR folks I surveyed. Even if you’re not interested in covering a story, don’t be afraid to politely turn it down. You can do this courteously by writing something like, “I’m going to pass on this particular release, but please keep me in mind if you have news in the future.””

    So many journalists are complaining about PR spam/being emailed via mass mailing and asking for personalized pitches–yet ignore us completely when we take the time to write a personalized email. I understand how the media works (you’re busy, might not have time or interest in the pitch), but a simple acknowledgment–even to say you won’t/can’t/don’t want to cover my story–would make me feel less like I wasted an entire day to send out targeted pitches

  3. How is it that every day you write something I like even more than the day before? Okay of course I’m biased on this subject but I have been having such a great time reading your writing.

    Thanks for this – it will be interesting to see how your industry colleagues react. Journalists don’t have to be NICE to us but they don’t have to jerks either. Just answering us is a huge step forward – so thanks for posting that. Even a one liner like Walt Mossberg’s very-to-the-point-but-not-rude “No, thanks,” is quite effective.

    PR people need to do a better job at getting journalists the right information – keeping in mind the readers, as you said. If we pitch a journalist something stupid or off-beat then we probably deserve a little grouchiness – even if we are friends. Actually, pitching a stupid angle to your friend would be even worse. So, PR folks need to continue to make that effort – it’s one of the biggest problems. But, that being said, sometimes we do think a story would genuinely be of interest and we’re not pitching something “wrong,” just something you might not find as compelling as we thought. Hey, we’re all human, right?

    I think the bottom line is something we all learned when we were toddlers – treat others like you want to be treated. Easy. Simple.

    Christine Perkett

  4. I can see how PR people get a bad wrap. Kind of a thankless job most of the time. Amazing that I eventually want to end up in the profession.

    I know this belongs in your last post, but the comments section was becoming ridiculously long. I wanted to make note of it in your series of being a better journo.

    The article is about why old media rules still apply to new media.

    She has a great point that really it can be boiled down to what is in the SPJ code of ethics.

  5. Jolie – Thank you for this post! As a PR professional myself, I work hard to establish respectful, professional and mutually beneficial relationships with journalists. I don’t want to waste your time with “spin” or marketing BS, and I am incredibly grateful for journalists that respect my time and job by letting me know if they are interested in a pitch or not.

    I hope your post can help us all work together in a respectful manner and get our jobs done. We’re all busy but we can help each other out. Thanks, Jolie, for taking the time to remind both sides how to be better professionals!

    Karianne Stinson –
    Sterling Communications –


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