PR Mistakes no 2: Journalists aren’t ‘cosy’

Journalists come in all forms, way beyond the categories of good, bad and indifferent. Few do the job just for the money. Some are politically savvy; others are meticulous researchers. A few are a royal pain. Almost all want to write a book and one or two accomplish this.

The specialists often impress me. My work for some years was in the health and medicine field, and so I dealt with health editors and correspondents. The most senior have a deep knowledge both of medicine as a science and also of the endless ramifications of the NHS, which of course remains a hugely political arena. In fact, there are one or two who have such a wide understanding that I would sometimes arrange one-to-one briefing sessions, not so much from client to journalist but the other way around! There would be a trade off: latest stories or research from the client, overview of health scene – occasionally with very accurate predictions – from the journalist.

Despite working with some journalists for many years, I was keenly aware that the friendship rested on integrity. It is foolish to present a story you know does not ‘have legs’ simply because your client has unrealistic expectations. It is damaging to your reputation as a PR to do so. I aimed to present only strong stories with real potential, even though on occasions they were not used. This meant that whenever I first contacted the correspondents, I at least had a proper hearing. Feed them a stream of rubbish and this won’t happen. They receive so much material on a daily basis that you need the edge.

The idea that you can buy space is nonsense. Gone are the days of long expensive lunches and soirees. The number of staff posts in journalism has shrunk. Many magazines, print or online, depend on freelances. They are not paid vast amounts and so have to achieve a number of commissions per week to cover the mortgage. Even those on staff have tight deadlines because so much appears instantly online. They need to file copy quickly to stay abreast of the opposition. I haven’t held a press conference for years, even for the stories with national appeal. I will provide information under embargo, and access to both spokespeople and picture opportunities over a number of hours. I have heard sighs of relief from journalists when they realise they are not tied to a specific time at a venue which may not be convenient to them. Nowadays, only the police and government departments persist in calling press conferences.

It is also true that, other than frontline correspondents and travel writers, most journalists have another life: children with homework, dogs to be walked, shopping, cars to be serviced, just the same as the rest of us. They want to get home at a reasonable time, and your elegant evening reception for heavens knows how many journalists won’t have a high attendance unless there are some exceptional stories, angles and some highly desirable spokespeople, otherwise unobtainable.

Expecting favours is another no go area. Just because you supplied fourteen great stories in a stream does not mean you can slip in something weak. If you suddenly have a negative story, forget that you have a great relationship with the journalist on the end of the phone. At most your prior history may buy you a little more time to get your crisis strategy in gear.

So journalists are not cosy. But if they are good, they will be fair. We treasure those guys.


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