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

7 thoughts on “The Special Relationship

  1. Jon,

    Great post. I think reporters fall into the same four categories, loosely speaking.

    Group #1 (incompetent and powerless) is the first-time reporters who think about “trying their hand at journalism because they love to write.” It also includes some long-timers who are mailing it in. They ask you to repeat your quotes 15 times because they are “slow typists.” Often this group is pretty innocuous — they don’t break much of substance but often misquote you or simply get numbers/facts wrong. You give them vanilla quotes to ensure your key messages sit beside the inaccuracies.

    Group #2 (competent and powerless) reminds me of some veteran TV reporters who are stuck in stations trying to improve their ratings. They are forced to do stories that insult their intelligence and they can barely hide the contempt in their stand-ups. You navigate them on the basis of the relationship and you give them some of the nuggets off the record to protect your company. Then you throw a brick through the television set during the teaser promos.

    Group #3 (incompetent and powerful) is the print reporter from the small to medium-sized paper who wants to write for the New York Times and thinks the only way to get there is to shock the public. They ask loaded questions, try to bait you, insert lots of innuendo in their stories. You stand your ground, stay on message, and, when applicable, you say sternly, “If you report that, you’re going to be wrong.” Talk radio and cable TV is another good example of this, where you get put on the spot with a grenade of a question. Think of the Ruth Corley show. These are the ones I lose the most sleep over.

    Group #4 (competent and powerful) is the man or woman who cares about journalism so much that nothing stands in the way of their commitment to the public and the facts. They are often the ones that call just to check in. They know they need you, and you need them. You make deposits into their bank account by giving them background, and they are up front with you about their story topic, tone and focus. If your company is going to get burned, they let you know and chances are you have done something to deserve it. This is also the group for whom one technique doesn’t work. You need to use everything in your toolbox, and when the story appears (good or bad) you’re exhausted but usually feel as if you’ve done your job well.


  2. Great stuff. We should hook up 4s with 4s for communications eugenics.

    When I was a reporter, for 10 years, I wasn’t very aware of PR people. I think that means the good ones were getting me what I needed and weren’t obviously in my way, but were briefly and clearly telling their story, advocating without hustling. Bad ones (1, 2 & 3) I must have ignored or blown through.

    When I moved to PR Don Gilmore, who literally wrote the book on First Amendment law, told me “as a reporter you worked for the public good, now you’ll be working for private good.” It was a crystal clear distinction. Some eager PR people at the agency said they liked being part of journalism as purveyors of information. No, dear, you’re not part of journalism, I’d say snottily — see distinction above. Journalists go wherever the information takes them, PR folks try to steer journalists. Big difference.

    PR people who drive me crazy don’t understand that difference, and they don’t know how, as Austin and DJ do, to advocate forcefully without being that weird blend of self-righteousness, breathless enthusiasm and bobble-headed cluelessness about how journalism works. PR people need to know how to connect their client’s stuff with the journalist’s audience. If they can’t do that, they’re just junk mail/calls/email.

  3. Kelly Groehler says:

    It’s more a question of dissent among the public relations ranks.

    We worry way too much about the reporter-practitioner dynamic. You said it yourself: It’s the journalist’s job to deliver fair coverage – it’s our job to help manage an organization’s relationships in an ethical manner and tell its stories. And while journalism will remain a core competency for any public relations practitioner, it also takes business acumen in order to earn that respect as a “trusted advisor” among the management ranks. But even “trusted advisors” are perceived more generally in the workplace as the “media relations” folks. Defining our profession solely by its journalistic ties does us no favors.

    4s are disliked because their aspirations to the “trusted advisor” role attempt to redefine this profession. And this makes more work for the 1s, 2s, and 3s, who openly and vocally mock and resist that change.

    We are our own worst enemies.

  4. Eileen says:

    I’ll take another Summit, please. (It’s noon somewhere!) I have a comment rolling around in my head that needs some time to form. The Summit will help, I’m sure.

  5. Lurker says:

    Kelly makes a good point, but we’re also our own best friends. I’d like to hear from a PR practitioner who would say his/her best friend is a reporter. That might have the foundation for a really bad Hollywood movie. In a previous career I got to be pretty chummy with Les Suzukamo at the Pioneer Press and by George if he didn’t actually write some of the most balanced coverage when he reported on the tech company I served. Why? Because I helped him “get” the industry and understand the differences between GAAP and pro-forma reporting. Hmmm. Maybe man’s best friend isn’t a dog afterall.

  6. Curtis Smith says:

    This may be simple minded of me (please, no comments), but aren’t both camps storytellers?

    Trust me. Some media lists I’ve seen are almost as large as current Strib circulation numbers. Yikes. I can’t believe I just took a shot at both parties in one sentence.

    Austin, I’ll have a kamikaze shot.


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