Wick Communications

The give and get of PR

In Public relations on 22 Sep 2011 at 4:12 pm

Last week I ran upon a column Sacramento Bee reporter Jon Ortiz penned for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. I asked him if I could reprint it here and he graciously agreed. It’s about how best to deal with the many spokesmen and public relations women that we all encounter in our jobs as journalists. Jon writes The State Worker blog and column for The Sacramento Bee and knows a thing or two about getting information from the gatekeepers at the statehouse. I particularly like what he says about having a little respect for these folks. Take it away, Jon.

Pause for a moment to consider the folks whose jobs rest in the often-uncomfortable intersection of journalism and government: the public information officers.

Now that I cover the state workforce for The Sacramento Bee, I talk to these folks several times each week – sometimes several times each day. As a group, they’re easily the most helpful and informative people I interview.

But it’s a tricky relationship. 

A good press person can speed your access to sources or data, add vital background information or even suggest great stories that you might have otherwise missed. But get crossways with a media relations staffer and you can find yourself unofficially consigned to the back of the line.

Of course there are terrible PIOs, just like there are bad journalists and awful doctors. Sometimes a reporter’s relationship with a media gatekeeper is rightly adversarial, particularly if the journalist is asking for public information and the information officer (or usually his or her boss) is withholding it. 

I’ve always sought a measure of mutual respect with media staff. They have their bosses, just like I do. So with that in mind, here are some suggestions for dealing with the public information officers, the press secretaries and the spokespeople who are the gatekeepers for political movers and shakers:

Do your homework: If you’re going to talk with a PIO for the first time, take a few minutes to make sure you know a few basics about their department. Check its website: What’s the mission? Who is the boss? Asking rudimentary questions that you could have answered on your own indicates you don’t value the PIO’s time. Look first, then ask whenever possible.

No surprises: Always give media people a heads-up when their department or boss is going to be in a story. If the direction of a report changes – for example, a benign profile suddenly unearths potentially damaging information – I let the PIO know as soon as I can.

Best answer: I try to call press folks early in the reporting process because they often deal with a bureaucratic thicket to retrieve answers or to give me access to their superiors. Calling early also opens the door to again call later when an editor’s question pops up on deadline. It’s easier to continue a conversation at the 11th hour than to start one.

 The best media spokespeople have the stature, confidence and independence to talk without heavy vetting up the organizational food chain, but I still call them as early as possible to get their best answer.

Take the long view: Cheap, incendiary quotes can get your story noticed for a day – and ruin a potentially useful relationship forever. I don’t go easy on press people and I don’t let them take back what they say on the record. Still, I let them know that I’m interested in developing lasting contacts and learning what they know, not tripping them up or publicly embarrassing them.

Give a little, get a little: Media relations people will occasionally have to promote their bosses’ pet projects, their departments’ charitable activities, or employees’ awards or accomplishments. It’s tempting for a journalist to dismiss those sorts of press announcements as self-congratulatory claptrap. But writing the occasional “beat sweetener” that helps a press herder with his or her boss can separate you from the journalistic pack that only comes around to report bad news. And you never know when that favor might come back to you as info or access on a big news story.

People business: In the harried, ever-quickening pace of journalism, it’s tempting to deal with press officers exclusively by phone or email. It’s more efficient for you and for them. But reporting is still a people business first, especially when it comes to cultivating good sources. So take the time to meet PIOs for coffee or lunch. Go by their office for a visit. Have them over to your newsroom to meet your editor. The goal is to establish a connection that separates you from the crowd.

The implied threat: While media people can make life easier, they can’t keep you from writing about a subject they’d rather not see publicized. For many, the worst three words in the English language are “declined to comment” with their name or organization attached to the phrase. I always call a skittish PIO and say, “I just want to make sure you guys have a chance to respond, since I know you always want to have a voice in stories that involve the so-and-so Department.”

Lastly, you know you’re gaining ground with a media relations official when:

  • They always take your call or return it quickly.
  • They call you first with legitimate news.
  • You have the cell phone number of their department/agency boss.
  • They constructively criticize what you write about their organization instead of merely spinning you for easier treatment the next time you cover them.
  • They toss you legitimate story ideas – including some that don’t flatter their organization.
  • They take the initiative to suggest meetings with sources.
  • They answer your questions directly instead of feeding you canned statements (which often happens when corresponding via email).
  • When a document is clearly public, they just give it to you instead of forcing you to hop through paperwork hoops.
  • You’ve visited with them face-to-face at least one time in the last year.

— Jon Ortiz


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