It may be that there will always be some friction between public relations practitioners and journalists but there should also be a good working relationship based on mutual respect. Reporters, editors and public relations professionals should seek to understand and value each other's roles.
On this premise, Colleen Gareau (pictured), senior consultant and principal at Seventh Estate PR, www.seventhestatepr.com, and I, with 17 years experience as a journalist, delivered a media relations presentation to final year Bachelor of Public Relations students at Mount Saint Vincent University on May 17, 2011. As a sample of what we discussed, here are our top 10 recommendations (with helpful input from several of our professional colleagues) for public relations professionals tasked with media relations.
Top 10 "to do"
1. Be proactive: Learn who is covering your beat. Build relationships with journalists at industry events, using social media, etc. When you start a new job it’s okay to call reporters and editors to introduce yourself so they know who to speak with. They like to keep their contact lists up-to-date too.
2. Be professional: Return calls, emails promptly. Be accommodating but know when to say no. Don’t boast, demean or blame. Don’t argue but don’t let a journalist put words in your mouth. Correct misinformation without repeating the error or offensive term. Have media-trained spokespersons but don't over-rely on one person or a few people (though you may have no choice in this). Twitter advice from Fiona Parsons, manager, marketing & communications for Events NS, plus, marketing and communications for the Halifax Metro Centre: Always have a spokesperson handy. Know media deadlines.
3. Keep up-to-date media lists. Sometimes you will do a media blitz, sometimes a targeted approach is better. Twitter advice from Tim Winchester at Colour (communications agency): Become a news junky. Become very familiar with media and who’s saying what and who’s covering what.
4. Write compelling media releases (including social media releases) that are error-free and include links, contacts. Make stories irresistible. Numbers (data) have appeal as do characters (anecdotes). Tiasia Williams from MM Branding in Brooklyn, NY says that a good angle is everything. Alan Gates of Red Gate, a communications firm in New Brunswick, says don’t pitch BS stories to the media. Have something of substance. If not, post on your blog or buy an ad.
5. Speak and write in clear language. Avoid terms that are unfamiliar to the public, acronyms, jargon, clichés, technical and academic terms.
6. Have an up-to-date web site. Be sure that your contact information is easy to find and includes a phone number and email address. Online forms are useless to a reporter needing to speak with you on deadline.
7. Stay on topic. Discuss only activities and policies that lie within your area of responsibility.
8. Be sincere. Think of others’ points of view. How will this story impact others? Fiona says that if you’re enthusiastic and believe what you’re saying, others will too.
9. Tell the truth. Always. It’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” If it’s something you can find out, tell them you’ll find the answer and get back to them before their deadline. It’s okay to say you can’t discuss something because of privacy issues, company policy or for some other reason but don’t fib. Don’t bluff, tell half-truths, exaggerate or guess at the answer. Don’t answer hypothetical questions. If a question is unfair or personal, say so politely and do not answer.
10. Answer, bridge and shut-up. Answer a direct question directly, use a bridging statement (e.g., "what's really important to know is...") and deliver one of your key messages. Then stop talking. (Journalists use the culture of filling in the silence to their advantage.)
Top 10 "not to do"
1. Give certain media outlets preferential treatment. Don't favour consumer/mass media over business-to-business or trade journalists. These people often have direct connections to your stakeholders.
2. Send gimmicks or gifts. Reporters have said that they feel like this is a bribe, even if that's not what you intended when you sent the item you were hoping would catch their interest. They often will avoid covering your story because they feel like you're trying to buy their byline.
3. Capitalize on tragedy or make weak associations with current events.
4. Be a pest. If a reporter or editor isn't interested in your story, get over it and keep your eyes and ears open for a more newsworthy story in the future.
5. Over promise. Your job is to deliver good service. This means that you should only promise to deliver what you can and to deliver it by deadline – the journalist's deadline, not yours.
6. Be patronized (or patronizing). Media and PR people depend on one another. As Mel Hennigar of 110 Communications tweeted: Remember that the media is just trying to do their job and that they’re not the enemy.
7. Don’t speak to issues outside your purview. If you’re asked a question that isn’t yours to talk about, say so. If appropriate, you may direct the reporter to the right source.
8. Say "no comment." A reporter will assume you have something to hide. If you can't discuss something, state why you can't (e.g., company policy) then use a bridging statement such as "but what I can discuss is" and add in your key message.
9. Say something is "off the record." EVER. If you say it, it can be reported.
10. Don’t whine. Ask media to correct inaccuracies if they are important/will have an impact and otherwise, let them go. Remember, misquotes often happen because you didn’t give succinct answers.
The media-PR relationship is symbiotic. Each depends on the other. Both parties need to respect one another. Good manners and professionalism are essential. If you are happy with media coverage you've received, say thank-you. If you are unhappy, tactfully explain why.
Also, keep in mind that journalists will try to circumvent procedure and reach top brass directly. Be aware of this and make it worth their while to work with you (have value-added services such as digital head shots of key spokespersons, background info, CVs, etc.). If it is your organization's policy to direct media requests through a media relations department then leaders should know not to take media calls directly. Explain the importance of this to your senior management.
Colleen and I were able to capitalize on our respective expertise in public relations and journalism to deliver a dynamic presentation packed with real-world examples. If you are seeking media relations training for your group, we'd love the opportunity to tell you more about what we might tailor to your specific needs.