Blaming it on PR: A Cautionary Tale

“It’s PR’s fault!” This is what a reporter acquaintance for a daily publication recently exclaimed to me, as she was lamenting the inability to set up a meeting with a top executive at a major conference. “They didn’t get back to me, and then the head of the company was mad that we didn’t interview him.  PR there sucks.”

There are a few things wrong with this story:

> First, it’s easy for reporters to place the blame on the PR department if an interview falls through or is never even set up.

> Second, the reporter refers to a PR professional as the profession itself: instead of Jane Smith or even “the PR representative,” this reporter sees the PR rep as the lump sum of Unhelpfulness.  PR’s just a department.

> Third, this reporter doesn’t truly understand the role of Public Relations and possibly (don’t tell her I said this!) her role as a reporter. If you really want to interview the head of this organization, find a way to do it. Make your pitch to the PR person compelling enough that he’ll call you back. Give the PR person enough time to set things up, too.

(Turns out, the reporter contacted the company PR department two days before a major event, and most of the company was either heading to the big conference or diverted with trade-show planning.)

Interestingly, the reporter didn’t know what she was going to interview this executive about; she just needed to get the interview. With newsrooms and media departments spread thin, it is increasingly less likely that the beat reporter will be getting specific guidance from her editor about coverage and story ideas. So it’s beholden on the reporters to figure it out, and for Public Relations professionals to be one of their guides.

I asked the reporter is she had a relationship with any of the PR people at this major company.  “Not really. I mean, they send me press releases, but that’s about it.”  Then she remembered they had invited her to product launch parties and have reached out for interview requests with their key execs, but she usually ignored the outreach. Why did she ignore them? You know the answer: because she didn’t need them at the time.

Media Relations is a two-way street.  In the past month, I had the pleasure of editing PR News’ latest Media Training Guidebook, and one of the themes was the difficulty of relationship-building in a too-much-information culture where it’s so much easier to just hide behind social media and email, and not develop substantive relationships.

And, as many of our guidebook contributors advised, if you have a good story to tell, your chances of getting covered by the media goes up exponentially. Maybe the story of my journalist friend and the PR rep would have ended better if it began with a good story. If the company was telling a new story about its brand, the reporter would be interested in learning more and would be more proactive in building a relationship with PR.

But somehow, it all got lost in translation: the reporter didn’t know what she was going to be writing about; the company didn’t have a story to tell and therefore didn’t care that much about getting coverage, and a cloud of indifference marred progress. So, unfortunately one of the stories to come out of this is a tale of media relations gone awry, told by one side.

Those in PR know this is an old story and it must be put to bed.

– Diane Schwartz


  • David Wojdyla

    Diane, I agree it’s easier to hide behind social media and e-mail than develop substantive relationships. That’s why I made a new year’s resolution to change my behavior. (FYI, I’ll revisit this post at the end of the year and let you know how I did.)

  • Howard High

    Hi Diane — I’m more on the side of the reporter, even though the reporter didn’t make it easy to accommodate her request. The reporter’s job isn’t to make it easy for the company, but my job is to make it easy for the reporter/publication to write about my company. Since the reporter didn’t have a story already in mind, then I think that’s a bigger opportunity because I get to choose the story. I can’t think of a time when I was headed to a big conference and didn’t have a story I wanted to tell. Anyway, I think it is the responsibility of the PR person to find a way to seize the opportunity and get their story in the publication. By being flexible and available to the reporter, and giving them a great story, I think this is a good foundation to begin that all important relationship building.

  • Sandy

    I find that whatever your position is, PR people are any easy target to place blame.

  • Alex

    I’ve been a reporter and a PR guy, and will side with PR this time. If I really needed an interview with someone, I was more likely to become a pain by calling too often to see if something had been arranged than by leaving a message and waiting for a call-back.

    The most mind-bobbling part is the reporter having no idea what she would ask the CEO. Maybe the rules have changed, but I always knew what the topic would be whether as reporter or as PR person. While the media/PR relationship is often adversarial, it is always symbiotic.