Frankie Flack: Correcting facts ahead of time
I have spent a lot of time in this column discussing the importance of building relationships with reporters. You hear it so often in the public relations world that many people have stopped thinking about what these words mean and why “relationships” are a cornerstone of the practice of public relations.
In fact, many reporters would likely argue that not only has the origin of this adage has been forgotten but the meaning has been ignored. That is what happens when lessons are taught without examples. If you can’t explain to a new college graduate just exactly why reputation and relationships matter in the PR business, then the practicality of the advice will be ignored.
This is why when teaching media relations to new PR people I emphasize a simple and critical function of the PR and media relationship: talking a reporter off all or a part of a story.
Getting a reporter to walk away from any bit of a story can be no easy task and from a PR perspective comes in vary degrees of difficulty. At its simplest, the reporter has heard something that is interesting but is actually inaccurate. At the most advanced, a reporter is on to something that is accurate and potentially damaging to a client (which I will discuss in more detail in a later column).
In a simple example, let’s assume that a reporter calls up the PR person and says they are working on a story that XYZ Corp. spent $4.5 billion in the last year on development of a new product. In reality the development of the new product cost $3.5 billion. While most people would assume that this is a simple problem to solve, when it comes to corporate spending disclosures nothing is simple. Private or public companies likely do not want to disclose this information, but if reported inaccurately the market could punish the company for spending too much.
Enter the PR pro with his strong relationship with the reporter. In this case, the PR pro can work with the reporter off-the-record to guide the reporter in the right direction. In this case, the PR pro might say “you know I can’t confirm our spending numbers on or off the record, but I can tell you that the number you have number is high.” In some cases, the company may even make the decision to supply the accurate number on background.
What becomes glaringly obvious in this example is the trust that has be established between the reporter and the PR pro. If the reporter doesn’t trust the PR person they may pause at the off the record caution but will likely push forward with that number.
However, if the reporter can trust the PR pro then it’s more likely they will appreciate the guidance. On a side note, I believe a company or agencies reputation matters just as much here, too. Even without an existing relationship with the PR pro, a reporter may have trust in the agency or company based on previous experiences.
Working with reporters cannot be a one-way street in which the PR pro hits send on a million emails and hopes a few “bite” on the story. (Unfortunately, this has become such a common practice it’s now known as “spray and prey”). A good PR pro has to be able to help a reporter write accurate and timely pieces while effectively representing their company or client.
It can be tricky at times, but open, honest and clear dialogue will build that trust and make life much easier.