Message Control: Changing the PR-Journalist Dynamic

Gone are the days of formality. Now, the relationship between reporter and corporation requires frequency and transparency. Inherent in this new bond: a faster, more casual relationship, with corporate communications specialists still controlling the messaging, but not micromanaging.

Journalists’ demands are greater than ever—they’re outputting more stories on more platforms. This gives rise to more mistakes, less time to craft a well-told story and less ability to track down sources.

These changes in media have created a ripe time for PR professionals to play a more significant role in shaping news stories. You can make journalists’ jobs easier, but you have to play the game right.

I’ve been on both sides, as a journalist and now as a media relations specialist. My background as a reporter, specializing in business and economics, gives me insight into what not to do. I held many interviews with CEOs by themselves and many with CEOs accompanied by their media handlers.

Nine out of 10 times the best sound bites came out of interviews where there was no media specialist “presiding.” This is not to discount the role of a media specialist, but rather to rethink, readjust and revise how a corporate communications professional relates to the media.

Controlling your message is the crux of a media specialist’s job. Too often PR professionals micromanage. Unfortunately, micromanaging reaps the worst results for all parties involved in the interview process. The CEO feels tongue-tied, the journalist feels censored and the PR professional is unknowingly initiating an enemy relationship.

As a journalist, I often found PR specialists needed more media training than their C-level executives. The approach to media training today needs to be as much about the communication specialist’s relationship to the media as it is about an executive’s preparation. After all, it doesn’t matter how great your CEO is: If the media relations specialist makes the stream of communication difficult and stressful, then you’re no longer in the same tank working toward the same goal.

Here are some ways to make an instant shift in your relationship with the media. Ultimately, you have to cultivate this positive dynamic, in order for any media training to succeed.

1. Control, don’t micromanage. Journalists need PR professionals and PR professionals need journalists. Overstepping your bounds is the worst thing you can do; it produces an “us versus you” mentality. Your objective needs to be the creation of allies, not enemies.

Instead of micromanaging the interview, be proactive and gather the necessary moving parts that will make your CEO not just the “expert” but the feature of the story. How? Provide a face of the story. For ultimate control, don’t just provide your executive with talking points, do the reporter’s legwork.

2. Serve accuracy, not accolades. When you’re pitching an idea, don’t write a novel. Pitch your CEO’s big ticket accomplishments, implementations and goals, hooking them into the story angle. Keep the pitch short and sweet. Don’t go into a two-page explanation as to why the executive is an expert.

If you can’t tell the success story of your CEO and company in less than a few sentences, then it’s quite likely your executive can’t either. A PR professional represents the media’s first window into the company. Reel in journalists with quick bites and relevant data; don’t repel them with accolades and industry lingo.

3. Fast access. Our lines of communication get quicker by the day. Journalists expect to get rapid answers. Give them what they want well before their deadline. Never tell a journalist you could have gotten them the information if they had given you more time. In a journalist’s world, time is of the essence. They’ll never be able to provide lead time, so accept that fact.

4. Craft perfect bites. CEOs are too busy to write the perfect bites, even if you’ve trained them well. Do their research for them and create, compelling, relatable 15-second sound bites for television and two sentence quotes for print.

This arms your executive with the ability to handle the toughest type of interviewer: a reporter who allows, even enables, the interviewee to talk endlessly. We saw this firsthand when Katie Couric interviewed Sarah Palin. An executive must only state what’s necessary; over-talking equates to less control during the interview process.

Explain to your executives the importance of short, concise, active voice sound bites. Long-winded, passive voice bites fall to the bottom of the story. Give the reader/listener a reason to care, not industry lingo.

5. Follow through: Always follow up after an interview. However, use your time and theirs wisely. Most corporate communications specialists contact the journalist post-interview stating two useless offerings, “If you need anything else please contact me,” and “I’d like to take a look at the story before it’s released.”

A journalist has no time to send you the story for “revisions”—perhaps for review but certainly not for editorial criticism. Journalists have their own editors. Asking for the story before it releases immediately puts the reporter on defense. Make them your friend, not an enemy. Use your follow-through as an opportunity to pitch a couple extra stories that you’ve been brewing.

6. Separate from marketing. Does the Nike CEO talk to the media and say, “Just do it?” Of course not. That’s a marketing slogan. So don’t use marketing slogans, campaign talk and mission statements during interviews, and certainly not in press releases.

Be natural. Spend your time stepping outside of marketing lingo and into laymen’s terms. Mastermind a compelling hook to your company’s products/services within the context of the story. Most importantly, give the viewer/reader a reason to care.

Your mission has been accomplished when a journalist turns to you for a sound bite. Typically, that’s not because your company or executives are so much better than competitors, but because you are easy to work with, deliver quality bites, not quantity, and are friends, not foes, of the dissemination of information. PRN


This article was written by Leslie Yeransian, a former field reporter, assignment desk editor and producer at ABC and NBC local affiliates and networks. She’s now a corporate communications specialist at Rising Medical Solutions.

( Editor’s Note: This article was excerpted from the recently published PR News’ Media Training Guidebook, Volume 3. To order this and other PR News guidebooks, go to

Five Key Media Relations Tips Straight From a Journalist

Here’s some key advice from former broadcast journalist Leslie Yeransian on what and what not to do when interacting with the media:

1. Don’t Micromanage: Whatever you do, don’t give your CEO cue cards to read from. Don’t tell the reporter he/she is limited to asking a specific set of questions. That just enrages a journalist.

2. Don’t Hover: Too often PR specialists hover over reporters, specifically in broadcast. After the interview, if a reporter stays on the premise to shoot a quick stand-up, don’t be a hawk.

3. Connect as a Friend First: Drop them a handwritten thank-you. A politician did this once—a simple note, surprisingly sincere, and I will always remember that. He took time out of his busy schedule to not be robotic, not be electronic, but be human and connect.

4. Deliver, Don’t Complain: After a story has been aired or printed, a journalist has moved onto the next story. They don’t want to hear criticism from you. Provide only the right bites in the beginning and you’ll never need to complain.

5. Picking Up the Pieces After the Fact Doesn’t Cut It: Oftentimes PR specialists don’t make it for the interview, but then scramble after the interview airs, saying we never agreed to that question: “I had no idea you were going to ask that.” A little too late.