4 Things PR Pros Should Never Say to a Journalist, and Vice Versa

Posted on July 12, 2012 
Filed Under General

Sometimes it’s good to go back to basics in the School of Media Relations. I am reminded of this after receiving a dozen emails this week and a few phone calls from PR professionals that were (to put it nicely) off target.  Having been on both sides of the business, media and PR, I know  the relationship between the two is an important one. Even in this social media age when it’s seemingly easy to bypass the media and go straight to the customer, we know the value and saving graces of a good public relations professional.  And the mistakes go both ways.  So, below (and tinged with some sarcasm for effect) are some playbook rules for both PR pros and journalists. Please add to the list, as I know there’s more to say here:

 4 Things You Shouldn’t Say to a Journalist:

1. Did you get my email about [so and so] joining the company?

** I might have, I might not have. But if I’m interested I’ll let you know.

2. I was wondering if you got the press release [on our new product]…

** If you sent it to me, I got it and if I’m interested…(see #1)

3. Can I see the story before it runs?

** Um, no. We are journalists.

4. You might not be the right person for this pitch, but…

** Then find the right person!

 

And…..

4 Things a Journalist Shouldn’t Say to a PR Pro:

1. Leave me alone, I’ll get back to you if I’m interested.

** That’s just rude and unprofessional.

2. Put me in touch with your CEO and maybe I’ll write the story.

** Threats get you nowhere (legally).

3. I would prefer it if you were not present during the interview.

** There’s nothing wrong with PR being in the room (or on phone) during a call.

4. Thanks for being such a great flack.

** It’s the last word that irks. The first six are good.

The majority of journalists and PR pros understand the rules and don’t break them.  It’s the Rule Breakers we need to worry about for the good of both professions. So, what  No-No’s would you add to these lists?

- Diane Schwartz

@dianeschwartz

 

Comments

  • Sandra Colon

    Hello Diane.

    It is so refreshing when a journalist acknowledges that he/she received your info. As simple as a 3 seconds email reply saying “thank you” is enough for us and it shows respect for our time and for what we do for a living. I really think its not professional and even rude not to do this.
    Regards
    Sandra

  • http://www.starrhall.com Starr Hall

    I agree Sandra, Acknowledgement that it was received is always greatly appreciated. Something that I do when I call journalist back is immediately ask them if I can have 30 seconds of their time, 99.9% say yes because 1) I have established that I respect their time by asking and 2) It let’s them know how long I will keep them on the phone. I then set a timer so that they can hear it go off, once I get to 30 seconds I close it by determining follow up or if the journalist wants to stay longer on the line then BOOM…I’m in! :)

  • http://www.uh.ro Szasza

    Sandra, are you really sure it’s rude not replying to PR mails? I mean I receive about 20-30 each day. Mass mails from all kinds of people. It would be rather bothersome to reply to each and every one of them.

    Also, I don’t think that the organizations issuing press releases or other PR stuff, expect to get a reply. These mails reach maybe hundreds of mailboxes (or at least 20-50), so receiving a thank you from each destination address is just spam.

    Of course if you are referring to more personal mailing, not mass mails or press releases, I understand and agree with your statement.

  • http://www.agr.com Torund Bryhn

    HI Diane,

    Number 2 (of not things to say to journalist) does not apply in Norway. Here it is socially accepted and somewhat expected to ask for the copy before it is published. This has been quite a cultural shift from the US. It does not mean that you can change the story, but you have the opportunity to review the quote and the context of the article.

    Best,
    TD

  • http://www.suitacommunications.com Paula Suita

    I hate hearing NOTHING back from a reporter after I’ve done my due diligence (researched the reporter, checked out recent writings, ensured a fit between their publication goals and what I have to offer), sent a tailored and concise pitch and made respectful follow up calls. I know everyone is busy but come on – if a Wall Street Journal reporter can have the decency to respond with “Thanks but I’m not interested because…” or “Yes I am but I need to know more” – is there a reason why other reporters from less well known sites can’t follow suit?

  • J

    Sandra and SzaSza, when i started out, i responded to every email i was sent. I was so appreciative just to be contacted. Fast forward a few years and that’s just not feasible anymore. 20-30 emails a day? I wish. My work inbox sees closer to 200 a day. I pride myself in looking at all of them – if only briefly – but i couldn’t possibly respond to all of them. You wind up faced with a choice of responding to emails or writing articles and doing your job. Obviously one trumps. I do recognize the names of my personal contacts, people i’ve met and worked with before and give them priority and, if your email pitch is on-target or piques my interest, i’ll certainly reply. But if you’re taking a shot in the dark, don’t know my coverage areas, hoping to get to someone else at my outlet through me or just generally creating more work for me and i don’t know who you are, i’m ignoring you no matter how many times you email. Unless you email so excessively i need to tell you to stop. Which has happened maybe five times in my career.

  • http://www.uh.ro Szasza

    J, I think you feel what I was talking about. And besides, most of the emails I receive are mass mails.

    Here it is quite customary for any organization (be that a company, a political party or anything) that has anything to tell people, to send it as a press relase to any and all possible press contacts they know about.

    It is rather frustrating to receive emails on a daily basis from a bakery a couple of hundred miles away. And of course there’s no unsubscribe link and they don’t even take you off the mailing list, even if you ask.

    These are the tnings that make me just scan through my mails and insta-delete quite a lot of them.

  • http://www.bearlair.ca/mags.htm John Geary

    I think both sides need to work at understanding the other side a little better. For example, today I just got an email from a p-r person wanting to know if I`d be interested in writing a story about traveling/vacationing with pets. Great angle – but it`s about four months too late. Most magazines have lead times of at least four months – or longer. And that kind of story is not something a freelancer would be able to sell to a newspaper. I might be able to pitch it – for next year. I`m actually composing a reply email so she knows I need stuff like that earlier.

  • Setu

    Hi Diane, I agree with point no.3 “Can I see the story before it runs?”. It is very rude to ask for the same.

    But i guess, it is acceptable to ask what the story is all about before engaging in a discussion and seek details of the areas covered by the story. If the story is too technical in nature, there are times when the Journalists themselves prefer to share certain sections of the story to ensure they got it right.

  • http://NA Rodaline Davila

    Hi Diane,

    Re: 3. Can I see the story before it runs?
    ** Um, no. We are journalists.

    This is a common request in Singapore, and some journalists are friendly enough to accommodate. (Torund Bryhn, good to know it’s done in Norway, too.)

    I guess Media-PR work relationship (if I may) greatly depends on where you are and what behavior is acceptable (culturally). Having worked with different clients in APAC, U.S. and Europe, I see PR like a form of art than science, no strict rules in black and white. (The writing aspect, of course, is another story.)

    I find that asking myself “how would I feel if I’m the person on the other side of the fence (media)?” always helps me establish rapport with them. If I would feel taken aback by the approach, I won’t do it, simple as that. I guess my main point boils down to knowing your market and fitting in to what’s culturally (and legally!) acceptable. Also, never ever be rude.  A little friendly gesture will go a long way. After all, at the end of the day, we all just try to make a living.

  • Nancy Reynolds

    Journalists and PR professionals alike are busy poeple who are typically under tight time constraints and deadlines and being bothered with follow ups can be a nuisance; however, let’s not forget simple social etiguette. If a journalist receives a personal e-mail from a PR professional who has take the time to direct the e-mail to the appropriate journalists with a targeted pitch or press release the journalist should respond with a brief “got it… I’ll be in touch if I’m interested.” Mass e-mails are a totally different story…

    Regarding review of an article before it breaks – the only time I ever ask to see a story before it breaks is when an editor/publisher asks me to write a story for them – which is fairly frequently for me. When my name or an individual in my company has their name on a piece, I want to see it.

    For the most part, when dealing with journalists, I tend to break a few rules when I have a personal connection/repoire with the journalist. If not, I typically go by the book.

  • Nancy Reynolds

    Journalists and PR professionals alike are busy poeple who are typically under tight time constraints and deadlines and being bothered with follow ups can be a nuisance; however, let’s not forget simple social etiquette. If a journalist receives a personal e-mail from a PR professional who has take the time to direct the e-mail to the appropriate journalist with a targeted pitch or press release the journalist should respond with a brief “got it… I’ll be in touch if I’m interested.” Mass e-mails are a totally different story…

    Regarding review of an article before it breaks – the only time I ever ask to see a story before it breaks is when an editor/publisher asks me to write a story for them – which is fairly frequently for me. When my name or an individual in my company has their name on a piece, I want to see it.

    For the most part, when dealing with journalists, I tend to break a few rules when I have a personal connection/repoire with the journalist. If not, I typically go by the book.

  • http://obsyourschools.blogspot.com/ Ann Doss Helms

    I reply to all local emails that are specifically sent to me. Like others, I do not feel any obligation to respond to those that are obviously mass mailings. If it begins with “Hello Ann Doss,” I seldom read further.

    On the flip side, a frustrating thing that inexperienced PR folks do (say, someone who’s just been tapped to communicate for a PTA or local nonprofit) is send something with the header “News release,” with all details hidden in an attachment. Like others, I get 2-300 emails a day, so unless something clues me in that this is a local event on my beat, it’s never going to get opened.

  • Deidre

    I don’t have an expectation for a reporter to acknowledge a press release, some do/some don’t it depends more on the reporter and your relationship with them.

    On occasion, if a story is very technical, I may suggest a review, for technical, not editorial content. Journalists I work with have told me they appreciate this. Again, this depends on your relationship with the reporter.

  • http://theaterofOneWorld.org Randy Gener

    I am a professional journalist who has worked in both the for-profit and non-profit universes. I’ve been published in daily newspapers, weekly tabloids, top and down-market magazines, personal websites, corporate websites, professional websites. Okay…

    When working in the for-profit world, #3 [Can I see the story before it runs?] is a question that I recoil from. PR people have no right to ask that question. If I get the story wrong, then it is my own reputation that is on the line. I am answerable to my editors and publishers. If I get the story wrong, it would be my fault. However, I have great pride in my work, and that I will get the story right.

    Working in the nonprofit world is a slightly different story. It has happened to me that an editor would show the PR people or the subject of my story in advance of publication. I get angry at the editor and publisher. Unfortunately, because the situation is nonprofit, somehow there is an expectation that professional journalistic rules and ethics are allowed to go out the window.

    In both universes, however, I will definitely agree if the PR person or the subject of the interview asks, “May I please see the parts in which I was quoted? I want to be sure that these quoted materials are accurate.” <–This one I will agree to in whatever context, so long as ONLY THE RELEVANT QUOTED SENTENCES are shown, and not the entire story before publication.

    I have pride that I will get the story right. And that has been why I have been successful at what I do for at least 15 years.

    As for this point:
    "3. I would prefer it if you were not present during the interview.
    ** There’s nothing wrong with PR being in the room (or on phone) during a call."

    I have had PR people on the phone or in the room during an interview. Although my ego wishes that PR people would not be in the room (for example, I would love to be able to have the true personal time with the interviewee, which other journalists have enjoyed in the past), I have no problem with the PR people hanging around. Why? It actually reflects more on them, or the interviewee, and the PR people's insecurity, and the interviewee's insecurity, rather than my own.

    Given the right context, I will embed or note or refer to the presence of the PR people in the room when I finally write the narrative so that the reader or the public becomes alert to the perceived sensitivity of the story. My noting this will even increase/heighten the reader interest in my story, and actually not devalue it.

    Please visit my international site at theaterofOneWorld.org ("In pursuit of cultural diplomacy and mutual understanding")

  • Jessica

    Here is another one I can think of: “As one of your valued advertisers” or “considering we purchase XYZ in advertising from your publication…”

    I am an PR professional and have been asked by my boss to deliver this line to journalists whose relationship I value. I think a lot of time PR people get backed against a wall trying to appease their employers while still maintaining a friendly relationship with journalists. Your boss is breathing down your neck, saying that we should be getting something in return for what we spend on advertising, not realizing that journalists and those that sell the magazine ads work independently of one another. Has anyone else ever dealt with this problem?

  • James Barton

    I really think generally if you’ve done your research and understand that a story needs to be news worthy then there shouldn’t be an issue. Problems occur because there is such onus on coverage being achieved. The PR could’ve worked for days on something and billed the client accordingly but if the journalist doesn’t like it then its all for nought.

  • http://www.cargonewsasia.com Greg Knowler

    Trade publishing is a different area to mainstream. We depend on advertising to pay the bills and big advertisers can often receive additional editorial coverage.

    The problem we have with PR companies, however, is that they are in fact competing against us for an advertiser’s marketing budget. Instead of advertising (or even having a balanced advert-PR approach), many companies contract a PR outfit to promote coverage in our magazine or online.

    So in effect, every time we interview one of their clients, the PR company can send out the bill and get its contract renewed while we wave goodbye to advertising.

    That is a zero sum practice.

  • Sandra L.

    Randy stated this as a journalist: When working in the for-profit world, #3 [Can I see the story before it runs?] is a question that I recoil from. PR people have no right to ask that question. If I get the story wrong, then it is my own reputation that is on the line.

    Randy, perhaps you could step into the PR professional’s shoes for a moment. It isn’t just your reputation on the line, it is also the reputation of the company you are writing about. If you mis-characterize a situation or even get it completely wrong, people are going to read it and may believe what you have written. Most stories written about the company I work for have at least one piece of information wrong. Most of the time it is minor; occasionally, it is major. Printing a correction later does not always ‘fix it’. And regardless, I ALWAYS hear about it from my CEO and co-workers.

    Perhaps showing a story prior to printing is not always possible. Checking facts and technical components should be, in my opinion.

  • Nancy

    I worked in p.r. at Howard Rubenstein in 1985 and 1986. Then I became a journalist, and worked as a reporter and editor for ten years. I now work in fundraising. When I worked at Rubenstein, we called up reporters to follow up on press releases. When I worked as a reporter, many of the press releases I received were not newsworthy. If they were, I called the press agent. If the press agent called me, I’d explan if I thought the story would be compelling to our readers. But I received a lot of press releases, and it’s not just not possible for a good reporter to respond to every release. A good journalist does a lot of time-consuming legwork to generate compelling stories.

  • https://twitter.com/NutritionistW1 Nutritionist London

    So often the press releases are just too dull, they are not news, they are just an advert. We are often asked to provide quotes to add interest and end up helping to reconstruct the whole release.

  • http://www.cdc24.pl pelet

    Interesting tips. They can really help to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings and conflicts.
    Thanks a lot

  • Cindi S.

    I would say #4 to a journalist if 1)we had an established relationship and 2) the “but” were to be followed by “do you know who might be?” With so many rapid changes in the media, it’s not always enough to watch/listen/read and check the outlet’s website.

  • Adrian

    Sandra L. – that’s an interesting point. I certainly see that getting technical components and facts right is essential.

    Where I think journalists get worried, is in “spin” (to use a negative word…I do both PR/comms and journo-writing myself, so it’s 6 and one half dozen). If you establish a reputation as a PR person that you will indicate changes to facts, dates, deadlines, numbers, that’s one thing.

    But if you establish a reputation that you want to change a pullquote so it makes your (insert exec title here) sound smarter and better fits your next advertising campaign…well, hey, that may be your firm’s reputation, but IMO that’s usually not appropriate!

    I find this sitting-in point odd. I’ve been in interviews with PR and without PR (mostly the latter – small orgs don’t always HAVE a PR person). About trusting LT relationships? I write small-time stuff, gotcha is the last thing in mind, I’ve been doing this nearly 10 years – relationships and networks.

    I also have this naive thought: If you want a trusting and honest client-journo relationship. Let’s take as a given (which it’s not, but in our scenario here) that you know the journo, have worked with them. Why does PR NEED to be on the line? What many (good) journos want: honest, direct, down-to-earth info/pullquotes from the subject matter expert (SME). Having the 3rd person in the room does, often, stilt the convo.

    If you really have a trusting relationship, there’s no need for the safety net? The journo would catch you if you fell! I.e. you wouldn’t use a ridiculous out of context quote to make someone look bad, you’d say: “What did you mean by that? Can you explain further?” giving the person the chance to correct their statement or explain their personal views vs. company views, whatever it may be.

    The PR person on the line gives me visions of a talk with the SME: bring up a question (sometimes even the SME brings up a tangential topic) and PR INTERRUPTS and says: “Well to get back to the main topic,” “We’re not ready to discuss that yet,” steering the SME around…it’s not very fun for anyone involved….can be like a leash to both the SME/subject and to the journo…

  • David C.

    Sandra L.’s answer to Randy makes a good point. I have worked both sides of the aisle and understand the cautions for each. Yes, a good journalist puts his reputation on the line and is responsible for any errors he/she may make. But even an immediate and full correction almost NEVER corrects the damage done by an error, especially a serious one. Not everyone will see the correction, and among those who do some will think it’s just PR damage control, or assume the company twisted an arm at the publication. Such is the cynical view most Americans have of the media as a whole these days. Add to that the fact that negatives usually stick in the readers’ minds more strongly than positives. And finally, especially when I was a copy editor at a major daily, I think that nearly every story I’ve ever read (or seen on TV) that I had some personal knowledge of contained at least one factual error. And they often go largely unnoticed and thus uncorrected. With the severe cuts in staff at nearly all newsrooms across the country, the danger of errors getting into stories uncorrected BEFORE publication is greater than ever. Writers and editors simply don’t have the luxury of more than a couple sets of eyes passing judgement on stories before they hit the page nowadays. One additional note: Many in the public still don’t clearly understand the difference between editorial content and paid advertising. It is a muddy morass for many, who assume there is some kind of payment or quid pro quo that occurs for much of what appears in print.

  • Kashvini Subramoneyam

    nancy reynold,please do something about your vocabulary and grammar..it’s ‘overwhelming’!

  • http://ribblog.com John Ribbler

    Here’s my favorite, funniest thing that (told to me by an editor friend) that an entry level PR person said to a journalist — and this was someone with a major national firm:

    “Are you the editor who covers press releases?”

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