OLD Media Moves

A PR person's perspective about business journalism

February 14, 2007

Hope Heyman has more than 25 years experience in corporate communications and public relations, specializing in media relations. She serves as the chief media strategist for a number of financial, corporate and health services companies as the senior vice president in Edelman’s New York Office.

Before entering public relations, Hope was a reporter and writer working for Institutional Investor’s Wall Street Letter, where she covered the institutional equity side of the street, and the U.S. equity-oriented exchanges.

Talking Biz News discussed the current relationship between business journalists and public relations professionals with Heyman. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

1. What do you think is the current relationship between PR people and business journalists?

I think it’s becoming a more distant relationship, at least for PR people working for agencies, with fewer face-to-face meetings or even phone calls as both PR practitioners and journalists communicate exclusively via e-mail. This diminished interaction is probably due to the rising work load for business journalists as more newspapers, business magazines and other hard-pressed print media cut back on the number of reporters, and reporters increasingly must meet the needs of a 24-hour cycle demanded by online news. The relationship between internal public relations professionals working for major corporations and the press remains mostly the same, with the top-tier media making a point of getting to know the internal PR people as the gateway to securing management interviews, and internal PR people making sure they have met, or are in touch with on a fairly regular basis, the reporters that cover their industry both in the trade and top-tier business media.

EdelmanHowever, during the past two decades fewer journalists seem to be entering public relations as a second career, and fewer public relations firms are hiring practitioners with a journalism background, and I believe this trend has had a major impact on the relationships. This is a loss. Former reporters are particularly good at counseling clients on strategies involving how to put their best foot forward when approaching the media; and reporters sometimes find themselves being pitched by junior public relations people who don’t understand the needs and deadlines of the press.

I also find that fewer younger people overall (not just in public relations) actually read a newspaper unless they are required to do so. They prefer to “consume” their news online from papers’ websites, or Googling things, which leads to a lot of errors, and in my view helps to erode the distinctions between what makes a story important — front page above the fold — and what makes a good second day story, feature or follow-up story. What has not changed, unfortunately, is that media relations is not valued at many large public relations agencies. (I like to think that my agency is very different, with media relations considered a key skill at all levels, reflected in the considerable resources committed to both training junior staff and to hiring experienced practitioners.)

The responsibility to call the media is sometimes handed off to younger people with guidance or support — which is why extremely busy, experienced senior reporters working on deadline still receive annoying phone calls from youngsters asking, “Did you receive my press release?”

2. How could it be improved?

In terms of the media, I would say that a good story can come from anywhere — but good reporters already know that. Meetings and phone calls with experienced PR people is not a waste of time. Sometimes a good story results.

On the PR side, it’s clear that young people need to be better trained about how to approach journalists, and how to get them what they need when they are writing a story about a client. Too often the practice of media relations has been left to instinct vs. a more cohesive training approach with nurturing and coaching. Young people need to think in terms of “story” vs. a product pitch; and trends vs. “getting my client into print.”

It is also a PR person’s responsibility to know as much as possible about a client’s business or the field, even if the account is new, and get up to speed as quickly as possible, so he or she is not suggesting stories already well covered by the media. A PR professional should also try to get the press as much information as possible before any interview, and make best efforts to provide the press with desired interviews.

A PR person should not be afraid to say “I don’t know,” but the second part of that sentence should be “let me see what I can find out — what’s your deadline?”

3. When business journalists complain about not getting the information they need for a story from a company, do they often have a valid complaint?

Sometimes they do. Keep in mind, however, that public relations agencies/internal people are only as good as their corporate bosses. If the CEO or the head of marketing makes the decision not to release information, the PR advisor can try to persuade him or her, but ultimately has to line up with that Kurt Eichenwaldcorporate decision. I think Kurt Eichenwald’s Enron book, “Conspiracy of Fools,” illustrates the great efforts that some PR people make to convince management to release critical information and to be open and honest with the press, and how sometimes that advice is ignored to the detriment of the company, its shareholders and other stakeholders.

On the other hand, a good reporter should be able to find out much of what he or she needs to know by good old-fashioned reporting — picking up the phone, talking to sources, reading public documents, talking to industry competitors, executives who have left the company, etc. And some reporters still use an old reporter’s trick: call the CEO early in the morning before the assistant or other gatekeeper comes in and ask your questions. As a PR practioner, I’m not advocating that approach (always go through the PR person), but as a former reporter, I know it sometimes works.

4. What are some of the things that business journalists do that bother PR people?

Speaking as a PR practitioner, three things bother me the most: 1. only covering the largest companies, and disregarding good story ideas from companies they may not have heard of before or smaller companies; 2. In response to a pitch e-mail or call from me (not from my client), taking the story idea, but bypassing me completely and contacting the client directly, and 3. cleaving to the view that if a story idea originates from a PR person, it can’t be very good; is slanted; and not worthy of consideration.

At least to me, all other business journalist practices are fair game. I trust reporters’ mission to get it fast; get it right; and get it first.

5. Are they justified in doing some of those things?

In terms of not covering a story idea, I realize that the print news hole is shrinking, and the shrinking pool of reporters has to concentrate on the biggest story ideas — which generally apply to very large, publicly owned companies. But a few reporters do not take the time to consider a story idea, and do not have an open mind for new stories, or “stray” from conventional stories. It is also true that a PR professional is seeking favorable coverage for his or her clients, and so is, of course, pitching story ideas that focus on positive aspects of a client’s businesses. That doesn’t make a story any less newsworthy.

6. How has the changing business journalism landscape – online, blogs, etc. – changed how PR is done for companies?

Increasingly, companies are asking pr agencies and internal communications departments for help in reaching out to or understanding both online and blogs. PR can help companies understand the best ways to communicate in these ever-changing fields. For example, online seems to be turning rather quickly into a video medium, and stories are given even more space if it has a good video component.

PR companies should and are helping companies to get their stories told through video, either through helping with production or partnering with other companies which specialize in this area. Speaking of broadcast and video, the arrival of Fox Business Channel might have a major impact on how business is covered on TV and other video media, but we’ll have to wait and see.

7. Some company CEOs are blogging and disclosing news on their blogs. Does that eliminate what PR can do for a company?

Not really. Blogs are an important part of a company’s stakeholders, but only one part. Corporations still need help in effectively communicating with the traditional print and broadcast media, online media, investors, community and employees — all of which fall under public relations. In fact, since communications have exploded on the Internet, a company can’t hope to reach its key public audiences only through traditional news media, such as newspapers or TV broadcast, because so many people are no longer reading papers or watching network news. This new age of multiple communications creates more ways in which a public relations firm can help companies communicate with their audiences.

8. The Wall Street Journal has stated it wants to provide more exclusive content to its readers. Does that run the risk of upsetting competing media who aren’t getting those exclusives from PR people at companies? (Obviously, this isn’t the only way they’d get that exclusive.)

Perhaps. But PR people have always offered exclusive stories to a particular desired business publication, and we have learned to take the heat from other publications that might have preferred that we offered them the story instead. I think the more upsetting idea for a PR practioner is that the Journal, for example, would use a story exclusively online, with no guarantee of also appearing in the print edition (although many online stories do make their way into print).

Print still counts, because some CEOs and other top managers don’t realize how important online media become, and to them, a news story is only real when it appears in a top-tier print publication — not its online arm. The decision a PR professional like myself faces, is — should I give the exclusive to the Journal, which might use it online and not in print?

Or should I say “no thanks” to the Journal if the editor can’t guarantee print as well as online coverage (and thereby I “lose” the Journal) and roll the dice by offering an exclusive to either the New York Times, USA Today or the Financial Times in the hope that one of the editors/reporters will agree to use the story in the print edition? If I really bungle this, I run the risk of getting much less attention for an important story.

9. Has business journalism gotten better or worse in the past 10 years? Why?

Overall, in terms of print, and online, I think the quality of business journalism has improved significantly. This trend is fueled by the increased interest in business — perhaps as the result of greater share ownership and interest in the stock market. The new crop of young journalists at the top business magazines or papers, such as Fortune, BusinessWeek, New York Times, etc. tend to be more knowledgeable about business in general, and some even hold MBAs or other advanced degrees.

They are skeptical, knowledgeable, relentlessly curious about business, and quite willing to report about interesting business successes. One exception to this general trend: the truly awful, idolatrous business reporting — both in print and in broadcast — covering the Internet and telecom booms (or bubbles) of the late ’90s and into 2000. Many print and business reporters did not question “facts” such as every business must have an Internet strategy; or the importance of being first to the market; or the seemingly endless appetite for broadband capacity.

Bethany McLeanThe best reporters, of course, like Floyd Norris of the Times or Bethany McLean of Fortune, continued during these runaway times to look at companies and markets with an analytical, skeptical eye, honed by their extensive knowledge of business and business fundamentals, and their ability to read a balance sheet.

10. What are some of the biggest mistakes you still see happening in business journalism?

Short-term thinking and focus on every little vibration of the stock market as a point of interest, without truly understanding economic trends. Some reporters still lack basic understanding of business principles and statistics, so they continue to make mistakes when reporting economic and financial news.

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