I spoke for an hour today to a journalism class at Duke University about business reporting. There were the basic questions about whether you could own stocks of companies you write about. (My answer was an emphatic no.) And there was the question about writing commentary about companies you cover from a news standpoint. (Call me old-fashioned, but I’m leery about this as well.)
Some of the questions were interesting in the insights that the students wanted into the process of gathering information as a business journalist and the relationships that a biz reporter must develop with sources, both inside and outside of the company.
A few of the students asked about the relationship between a business journalist who covers companies on a beat and the PR staffs of those companies. My response was that the PR people can be your best friends, and your worst enemies, depending on what story you were working on and what relationship you had with the company.
I relayed to them an incident that occurred to me in the mid-1990s when I was covering a large international company in Atlanta and pitched a story to someone in the company’s PR department about its changing sports marketing strategy. The PR department decided that was a national story that they’d prefer to see in a national newspaper such as USA Today, and so they pitched my idea to a reporter at that paper and kept me on hold until after it appeared in USA Today. As an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, I was livid to see my story in another paper. Another PR person at the company told me the day before the USA Today story ran that my idea had been given to another reporter.
On the other hand, I mentioned that there were PR people whom I had worked with in the past who told me information off the record that, if their superiors had known, likely would have resulted in their termination. I emphasized the fact that you could become friendly with a PR person, but that you never really could become their “friend.” It always had to be a professional relationship.
Another student asked about the business news coverage of Google and Wal-Mart, and asked why I thought Google’s coverage in recent years had been so favorable while Wal-Mart’s coverage had been much more critical. One of the explanations I gave to explain that coverage was how the PR departments for these respective companies treat the reporters who cover them. Having dealt with the Wal-Mart PR staff in the past and having talked to reporters who have written about Wal-Mart in recent years, it’s obvious that is a hostile relationship many times. However, it seems as if the Google PR department is excellent and sucking up to the reporters and pitching stories that will put the company in a favorable light.
To a certain degree, recent Google coverage reminds me of the fawning coverage that many Internet companies received in the late 1990s. Scary that we’ve fallen back into old habits so quickly.
The professor of the class gave me a Duke T-shirt for coming to the class, which was held nearly next door to Cameron Indoor Stadium. When I got home, my oldest son saw the shirt and wanted it burned.
Nasty rivalry. Still, I enjoyed not talking about basketball and telling war stories.