OLD Media Moves

How journalists can get the most from their relationship with a PR firm

December 11, 2012

Posted by Richard Dukas

Most reporters think PR agency executives are pests, either bothering them on a daily basis to write about their clients or blocking access to sources. But that doesn’t mean building strong relationships with the right PR people isn’t valuable. In fact, it can be extremely helpful over the long term for reporting and career development.

Most PR executives are career-minded individuals trying to make an honest living and grow professionally. They respect good and fair journalism, even if it occasionally goes against their own interests, and can provide journalists with timely access to a variety of interesting and topical sources.

But source access isn’t everything. PR people with good clients can also be good background sources themselves, passing along things they’re hearing in the marketplace and even suggesting experts and insiders to help move a story forward.

Remember, PR people are talking to a wide array of different clients on a daily basis and their job is to know the market as well as a reporter does. What’s more, editors often reach out to their most trusted PR sources when they’re looking to fill reporter positions. Reporters with solid working relationships with the right PR people often have an easier time advancing their careers.

Here are some simple tips to follow to get the most out of a relationship with a PR executive:

–Learn to separate the wheat from the chaff — the good PR executives from the bad. 

This shouldn’t be hard. Trust your intuition to ascertain if a PR executive knows their clients well, understands your needs and genuinely tries to help, even when they can’t give you access to a client. Other things to look for: Do they understand what you cover and can they quickly determine the best way to help you out? PR people who don’t understand a reporter’s perspective and get overly upset when a headline isn’t what they wanted aren’t worth your time either.

–Don’t be fooled by the reputation of the PR agency.  Some of the best-known firms can have poor personnel, while smaller agencies may have some of the very best.  Try to learn which firms are the good ones, and which people at those firms are the best and most helpful.

–Be open to developing relationships with PR executives. Go for lunch or grab a drink or a cup of coffee with a PR executive. They aren’t trying to woo you or curry favors. They simply want to get to know you outside of the office when you’re off deadline. The personal relationship will help both parties understand each others’ needs. Ask just as many questions of the PR person as you would a normal source.

–Try to work with PR executives to establish ground rules without bending to their wills. Understand that many potential sources are media neophytes — even the smartest financial wizards usually only have a vague idea of how the media works. It’s the job of a PR firm to explain that to them and put them out there when it’s best for them. Even if a PR firm wants to give you access, their client may be reticent to speak on a particular subject.

Acknowledge those concerns and work with the PR person to try to get the access you want. Many times the PR person is doing the same persuading you are. If prior ground rules for an interview can help persuade the source to come to the table, work with the PR person to find a way.

–Try to be open without giving away too much information. You don’t always need to give them a totally clear picture of how you plan to approach a story, yet you shouldn’t be totally opaque either. If you are too vague, it leads to suspicion, and they’ll advise their clients not to speak to you.

–If you plan to pan their client, try your best to let them know. Admittedly, this is a tough one. If you let the PR person know beforehand that a story is going to be negative, they may try to head it off by speaking to another outlet, or go into full spin mode. Good PR people will understand that not all stories are positive and try to make sure their perspective is reflected in your story. They will also appreciate the heads up so they can prepare their client—being blindsided by a negative story is one of the worst things a PR person has to deal with.

— As a general rule you should do everything you can to avoid having an adversarial relationship with a PR person. You’re not always going to cover their clients in the most favorable light, but treat people with respect and professionalism and that is usually reciprocated. They may not be happy with all your stories, but that doesn’t mean they don’t think you’re a good reporter.

Richard Dukas is the founder of Dukas Public Relations, a financial public relations firm.

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