The Special Relationship

Buy a round for a table of PR types and throw the raw meat into the tank:

“What drives you crazy about reporters?”

Stand back.

Funny thing is, you get the same reaction from a table full of reporters when asked about PR types.

Welcome to the love/hate relationship between flacks and hacks. In truth, we need each other and we drive each other crazy in equal measure. The relationship is powerful and intimate; I’ve had periods in my life when day-in and day-out I’ve had longer, more intense conversations with the beat reporter at the Star-Tribune than my wife. I’ve yelled, cursed and hung up; I’ve been yelled at, cursed and hung up on.

On the surface, most reporters profess to not care much for PR types, with the level of antipathy ranging from mild annoyance to active, seething hatred. Their gripes about us tend to be in one of four categories:

1. We’re incompetent and powerless.
2. We’re competent and powerless.
3. We’re incompetent and have some power.
4. We’re competent and have some power.

#1, #2 and #3 are why our business sometimes deserves the bad rap it gets…

#1 is the “Buffy/Biff” stereotype of the 20-something who robo-pitches/responds and doesn’t know – or care – about anything not on the script or the attached Q&A. Journalists hate these folks because they’re numerous time wasters. Eventually this function will be replaced by a robot (and has been to some extent already by the web).

#2 works for a company/client who doesn’t trust them or take their advice so they’re always operating on bad information or playing clean up, spending capital to fix messes that probably could have been avoided if they had been sitting at the table when something stupid got decided. Journalists learn that these people can’t help them much so they quickly become irrelevant. Most of these people eventually find other, hopefully better, jobs or quit trying to play Atlas.

#3 is somebody who actually has the ear of the CEO or the leadership team and doesn’t know what to do with it. The stereotype is the guy who has been at a company forever, know everything and everybody but probably don’t actually know much about the practice of communications (to say nothing of what’s happened culturally and technologically in the last 20 years). He has two stock responses to every situation – “no comment” and “call the editor.” Journalists use these people without them ever knowing what hit them – they’re easy pickings.

#4 is where all of us PR types should want to be – the “trusted advisor” model we talk about. My theory is that if you play this role with decency, civility and a bit of self-deprecating humor about yourself and your company, journalists may not always like you, but they will respect you and – more importantly – work with you. They know you have information and access that is valuable and that your clients/company leadership supports you.

When journalists don’t like this type of PR practitioner, it’s because we insist on “interfering” (translation “participating”) in the telling of our company’s/client’s story and this can make more work for lazy/imperious/agenda-pushing reporters. #4s have opinions, points of view, we push back on premises, sources, causality, news judgment and more. We reward good behavior and punish bad. We’re willing to be proactive and aggressive, to use all the resources at our disposal to fight back against reporting that is not in our company’s/client’s interests and to be forceful advocates of what advances those interests. That’s our job, IMHO, whether we are doing consumer events to help introduce a new product, doing litigation or crisis support or helping a company navigate the process of building a new manufacturing plant in a community.

Notice I didn’t say our job is to ensure “fair” coverage; that’s the media’s job in this culture and under the rules the media claim to uphold. Our job is to be the best possible advocates for our companies and clients within the bounds of ethical, honest behavior.

So, I’m buying a round for the house…what really drives YOU crazy about reporters or PR people?

– Austin