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What All PR People Should Know About Journalists

There was a movie released several years ago where Mel Gibson played a character that was struck by lightning and all of a sudden was able to hear women's thoughts. His character was an ad agency executive (the unfortunate default Hollywood stereotype of choice to signify that he was a bit of an ass), and with his new power he uncovered many truths about women he would never have otherwise known. What does this have to do with PR you ask? Over the past several months, I've had the opportunity to attend several events registered as a member of the media as a result of my blogging and contributions to online publications. Being part of the media at these events, and having my blog has given me the chance to see hundreds of pitches and experience PR as a "target."

In those times, I've started to realize many things about the world of public relations that most journalists know and many PR professionals are blissfully unaware of. Though I typically describe myself first as a marketer and second as working in a large PR agency … this education has been invaluable for me to understand the world of PR and how to work with my teammates better, as well as how to be more effective in a PR environment. Here are a few of the lessons I've learned that I'd like to share:

  1. Your BS is obvious. Many journalists would describe their roles are professional truth-seekers. In this capacity, they are naturally skeptical and this combination means that their bullsh*t meters are higher than most. So don't bother with the press releases about hiring your new VP of Sales that no one has ever heard of. Not only don't they care, they can smell it coming from a mile away.
  2. Timing trumps all. Journalists work with tight and sometimes unreasonable deadlines. As a result, they may not care about what you're pitching until they are right in the middle of it. Then they care a lot. What this means is that sometimes you need to focus less on what your message is, and more on when you deliver it. The good news is that as more journalists use tools like Twitter or Facebook to update their status, it is easier to know when is a good time to connect with them and when you might want to hold off on sending that email.
  3. Reputation matters. Delivering the right source for a story or failing to deliver is something that members of the press will usually remember. Having interviews fall through at the last minute can cause big problems for journalists on tight deadlines, so you need to manage your reputation and relationships extremely well. Burn a reporter once and you'll be fighting an uphill battle the next time. Have it happen twice and you may as well give up any hope of placing a future story.
  4. Features are not as important as an angle. This may seem obvious, but it's amazing how many pitches focus on all the great features of a new product or service. Or all the things it can do for its customers. Journalists are trying to build a story. So give them one to report about your product instead of just offering the facts. This often means giving context to those features and sharing the backstory behind them.
  5. Speed and contactability can make the difference. Another thing that social media tools can offer you is the ability to be "always on" for people to connect with you. Sometimes that's not a good thing and unplugging is a necessity for all of us … but giving journalists multiple ways to contact you and being available when they need a question answered is critical to getting your story included.
  6. Peer pitching works. It is much easier to "pitch" a story if a member of the media could consider you a peer instead of a hired flack selling a story. I have often called this concept "circular media" – the idea that each of us can be part of the media for the content we create, and it is easier to relate to one another on this level. Not only is this good for relationships, but it also helps you to sympathize with journalists if you yourself are on the receiving end of more than a few clueless pitches.

Update – Read a post from the opposite point of view … What Journalists Should Know About PR People

23 thoughts on “What All PR People Should Know About Journalists”

  1. Rohit,
    Thanks for telling it like it is. A couple of quick questions for you though.

    Press releases seem to have evolved from something that targets the press with a new story to more of a mass-announcement that hits all the automated sites. Do journalists really even use press releases much anymore? Or is it all the inside angle that one gets before or different than the press release. Thoughts?

    Also, you mention peer pitching? How have you seen the relationship between the “PR flack” (your term) and the core inside people work well? There is a LOT of work that the PR folks do, and that is invaluable, but often the inside scoop is from inside people. What have you seen work well?

    Thanks for the post, much enjoyed.

  2. As a journalist with 20+ years under his belt, this is spot on. Timing, angle and trust are three major ingredients to getting my ear.

    And yes, sadly, press releases are still effective because many news outlets have run out of people and time to vet the stories that float in via mail and email. Sometimes to fill space releases just show up in print without much editing with little fact checking.

    That makes most of us hate them as a vehicle even more. I’m not saying it’s rational, but to get a real story – written by the staff and bylined – you should think like a reporter and find out why anyone really cares about your widget, your celebration, your quarterly figures.

    Then present it factually without hyperbole and with as much truth as you can muster.

    That’s the best way to have us pay attention. The rest goes back to timing.

    Your story about a 90-year-old woman who saved a teenager from falling into a vat at your manufacturing plant won’t be news if it happens on the same day Obama gets inaugurated. And by tomorrow, who cares.

    So timing is the one element you have the hardest time controlling.

    Nice insight.


  3. In a nutshell I believe you need to think like a journalist, now that’s difficult if in fact you never were a journalist.

    I think the PR profession has a significant problem in that there is a majority of people in the general category of PR, professional or not, who are at the 101 level. I don’t disagree with anything in the post. It just draws my attention to the issues the profession with forever struggle with because it is so easy to say, I’m in PR?

    Part of this issue is because plenty of people believe they 1) have a really interesting story, and no advanced PR person can convince them they don’t, 2) were told by friends and family “ooh you should get the media to cover that,” and 3) they have no background in media, only a paycheck signed by someone who says “get me some media”

    I had two interesting conversations that advance the ball a bit on this topic, the first with Business Week reporter Stephen Baker In this Marketing Edge podcast, Baker talks about how his job as a journalist has changed and how he now must write for different formats and audiences, e.g. blogs, print magazine, books, and podcasts.

    The second with an author of the Bad Pitch Blog Kevin Dugan who describes the business model in PR that holds the profession back.

    They both shed some light on how journalism is changing. My fear is that as newspapers and other sources of media change, the ideals of journalism (accuracy, fact checking, independent confirmation of information, balanced coverage and analysis) will yield to things like Google rank, link love, and # of followers/friends.

    So be it, this too may be what the kids today call progress.

    Thanks for the post Rohit.

  4. The hardest part of all of this is persuading clients that this is the way its done and getting SR. management backing when you try to set expectations for them. Especially when you are at a junior level. Thank goodness I got married, so I could change my name and get off some of the blacklists.
    The pressure is tremendous to get hits, hits, hits … Fact is, often they don’t have a good story to tell. Or the want a release to go out the day they leave for vacation. We know what journalists want and strive to deliver it. But the clients and their big fat egos pay the bills, and they all think that they are the cat’s meow. I know, its our problem not the reporters. I wish there were more informed agency heads who will stop telling clients what they want to hear, and start telling them the hard truth.

  5. spot on, rohit. as a younger pr pro/flack/whatever (all those titles are sort of lame), i think there’s a new generation of us… not those old hackish envelop stuffers that are just out to sell sell sell without ever reading/watching the people their pitching. you know, those people who “think” they “know” the new media world. well, we’re about conversation (another vague term tossed around these days). if we can help you this minute, great. if not, we hope we had enough of a positive connection with you that when you do need help, you’ll remember us. later.

  6. Interesting article and enjoyed.

    Suggestion: you should also write an article that helps entrepreneurs to get proper exposure to the journalists. While some of the points discussed here certainly applies to entrepreneurs, I suspect there has to be more.

  7. Rohit–

    Dead-on. As a guy who was on the receiving end of pitches at the Washington Post for years, I can tell you that you’ve nailed it: Trust, timing, availability, the BS detector. . .Also previous familiarity with a PR person from non-pitch situations really matters.

    One elaboration:

    For me, as an MSM journalist and [now] blogger, I always look for the how-this-matters-to-consumers angle, provided it was linked with differentiation from the competition. From where I sit, that’s the ideal story.

  8. Well, this helps me understand a little better why so many of my former colleagues choose careers in PR. They’re naturals! However, I don’t get your tip #6. It seems to fly in the face of #1, which postulates that journalists can smell your BS. If that’s the case, then what makes you think they’ll warm to a PR person acting as though she and the journalists are peers? Maybe they were before the layoff … The best publicists are those who deliver 1 through 5. I don’t care how they do it and frankly, everyone’s style is different.

    One other thing: Most PR people are told not to follow up after a story featuring their clients appears. This strikes me as weird. I like it when I get an email saying thanks for that story. I don’t need to hear that you liked it or didn’t like it. I just like to know that the source saw the end result. Call it closure.

  9. Bing. Nice post. Now as a reporter, what should I know about PR folks? I’m getting to know some of them better, one-on-one through Twitter and Facebook.

    One thing I’d like to point out is press releases. I get hammered with press releases through my email. TONS of them from local PR folks. So many, I don’t even read ’em.

    I know sometimes press releases are vital and I love ’em when I need ’em (during scandals, public safety issues, amber alerts, etc,), but when I don’t need them (product pitches, etc), it’s background noise I just choose to ignore.

  10. I touched on the thorny topic of PR people vs journalists in a recent blog post:

    It’s a tough call when sitting in front of the client who desires press coverage and telling them that their “story”, frankly, isn’t one. As a journalist turned PR person, I feel qualified to have that conversation, but it doesn’t make it any easier.

    But clients should be persuaded that chasing column inches isn’t the exclusive (and certainly not always the best) route to getting the message across.

    If achieving media coverage doesn’t fit the campaign objectives (e.g., if your audience is small enough to call on the phone, individually) then it’s better to save the pain of being on the receiving end of a journalist’s sharp tongue.

  11. There were a flurry of blog posts a while back proclaiming the death of PR. But I think you’ve hit it on the nail: PR works if it meets the needs of the journalists it’s targeting.

    I’m not a professional PR person, but I have managed to earn press for myself and my employer by delivering the goods to journalists. It’s win/win. Better yet, I’m proud of the results: substantive coverage that people actually read.

    Examples: (over 1,000 views in the week since it was posted)

  12. I don’t think you’ve got quite the bombshell on your hands you seem to want to credit yourself with.

    Your offer of information that, “most journalists know and many PR professionals are blissfully unaware of”… is probably an overstatement to say the least.

    Good PR is very close to good journalism in terms of comment angles, flexibility, speed of reaction etc… I was in PR for 7 years working for a big agency before working for the last 5 years as a full time journalist.

    Point 2 on timing isn’t bad. We don’t care until we need to – and then we do.

    Want to know what we’re really thinking? If you ask me nicely I might tell you.


  13. Educate your clients; they pay you a lot of money (I have worked in PR and journalism) to offer them the best service. Be specific on their expectations, and realistic too.

    “We understand that hiring Mr. X as VP of Widget Sales is news in your industry, but not the general populas. We can probably get an interview in Widget Sales Monthly, but no promises with the Globe and Mail. Why don’t we also try that guy who blogs about widgets? It’s a nice community with a wide reach and would be appropriate. He might even tweet the article to his followers?”

  14. As a PR professional with a journalistic background, I have to say this article is golden… and representatives should really stick to this list… Especially #1. Sometimes it’s almost insulting when people try to bullshit me.

  15. Two other considerations:

    Package it all up — Newsrooms of all mediums continue to shrink, forcing fewer journalists to produce more content. At the same time, they’re competing with online sites, with deadlines pressures of five minutes ago. So make their job easier by providing a more comprehensive your pitch, Provide third-party sources — industry associations, statistics, websites.
    Prepare, in advance, some “real” people to provide context and colour, not just your company spokesperson. Show people (i.e. customers) in action who have experienced or are experiencing what you’re pitching.

    It’s not all about you — Fewer news stories are solely about your company or product or service: that’s called an ad. Make your pitch less product/service/company centric and more issue/trend centric. Show how your product/service/company fits into that issue/trend, influences it or is affected by it. And provide an element of timeliness: why should the journalist produce something about this now? What outside events (i.e. Presidential inauguration) make your product (i.e. streaming webcast app) topical or relevant today?.

    As someone who’s been on both sides of the media and PR fence about the same length of time (more than a decade on each), I’m still surprised at the number of PR professionals who have never even visited a newsroom, let alone worked in one. Highly recommended.

  16. Interesting post. Do I dare disagree that, “many PR professionals are blissfully unaware of” these things? I think many experienced PR pros know these things. And are able to convey to our clients. We know when stories are not newsworthy, and it’s our job to counsel, to coach, to help our clients find context for their stories. And to guide them in another direction when the stories are NOT newsworthy.

    Media relations is only one part of the many, many facets of PR. With press outlets cutting budgets and laying off journalists, more and more are heading into PR practice. When will we see the post, “What journalists should know about PR?”

    Just curious.

  17. Nice post, Rohit.

    And, I agree 100% with andywomyn’s comment here that experienced PR pros already know these things and are doing it right. Still, we see to hundreds of blog posts, teleseminars and webinars that continue to preach the same concepts of best practices. To me, this is a clear indication that there are many folks out there who have tacked “public relations” onto their list of expertise, especially with the rising popularity of “online pr”.

    Your point in #6 is especially right on, and so key in today’s social media landscape. A “social media expert specializing in online PR” may not understand the value in developing meaningful relationships with media who are most influential in your industry, but an experienced PR person, with a clear strategy, not only “gets it” but is now using social media tools to enhance (notice I didn’t say replace) the effort.

    Also, to expand again on andywomyn’s comment – a smart, experienced PR pro knows that there’s way more to the job than media relations. Here again, social media opens a new medium of opportunity that, if used correctly, can help us do our job better (or, just as quickly, make you look like an idiot, thus necessitating blog posts like these in the first place).

  18. Spot on, Rohit. I’ve been on both sides of the fence, and one of my biggest pet peeves while on the J side was hearing from PR folks who had no understanding of my publication. When I hopped the fence into PR, I made sure I understood the journalist and his/her media outlet. I wanted to know all of the possibilities for my pitches so I could be nimble and work the story into the right place at the right time.

    Without an understanding of the media and journalist, pitches will have no depth, and reporters can and will stop you dead. That’s a tough conversation to have with your client.

  19. Stellar, stellar post Rohit. Empathize, empathize, empathize. Write from the perspective of receiving the info you’re trying to get out there and continually ask yourself why this is of any importance at all amongst the thousands of other pitches journalists get. As PR folks and marketers, it’s important that we drill these points into younger agency staff from day one. It’s not a broadcast process, it’s a relationship building process or as fellow blogger David Mullen puts it…it’s “people relations.”

    @Aaron Barnhart – I fully agree with your point about the follow up but as opposed to closure, I see this as a step toward continuation of the PR-Journalist relationship. If the process went smoothly from pitch to published story and the journalist found the PR source to be of great value, then hopefully that’s grounds for working again on another story down the line.

  20. I’m a student at Hofstra University and I am studying public relations. I must say that I was slightly offended by your term bs in regards to what PR professionals do on a day to day basis. The majority of public relations professionals do not hide the truth. They instead present the public with the entire truth and perhaps put greater emphasis on the good side of the story.

  21. In these days of economical stress, getting free press rates among the best strategies for any organization. PR needs adjusting to meet the Media in the virtual pressroom, as opposed to the traditional one. This implies a new set of ethics and a need to be “blissfully aware” of journalist reality in the web arena. Most PR people are aware, but that said, it often does not translate in the doing. The insight you provide, and particularly views from both the perspective of the journalist and PR professional, is valuable.  It stresses the inevitable: it’s about relations, about give and take. And in any relationship, for it to work a chemistry of complicity must exist, and for this to happen one needs to be “blissfully” creative. Creativity is, in my opinion, too often the under-rated ingredient in PR success. 


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Rohit is the author of 9 books on trends, the future of business, building a more human brand with storytelling and how to create a more diverse and inclusive world.


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