Journalists and PR practitioners should never be friends

Green-Tiger At the recent MIPAA PR Masterclass, one of the speakers used an analogy of training a tiger to explain the relationship between journalists and PR practitioners; ie no matter how well you get on, the tiger can always bite you.

Relationships between journalists and PR practitioners are often said to be ambivalent as Anne Gregory wrote at PR Conversations in 2007 when calling for a discussion on the rules of engagement.

The controversy over relationships between News International journalists and UK politicians should be a reminder that a healthy distance should be maintained. 

Love-hate dynamics are muddied by the revolving door of journalists "switching sides" into PR roles, as in the case of Andy Coulson – which I wrote about in 2007: do ex-journalists make good PRs? (my answer being, no!)

Appointing a journalist into a communications role brings the benefits of someone who understands how the media works (or at least the part they have experienced) and how to craft news/features (or at least what makes a good churnalism ready press release).

They can also boast a Blackberry full of media contact details; mates who will be willing to attend events, report favourably and maybe bury a bit of bad news.  Well, that’s the pitch made for the "poacher turned gamekeeper" move.

Journalists can make good PR practitioners – but only if they realise the new occupation isn’t simply the other side of the fence.  This includes following the recommendation made for drug/alcohol addicts to make new friends.

Being too cosy with journalists is bound to cause issues for PR practitioners as this is relationship with power at its heart.  Professionally there is a mutual dependence, but allegiances are ultimately to other parties.

There is potential for many ethical dilemmas, which are compounded when the professional and personal get blurred.  This is especially the case when sexual attraction is involved. 

The image of a PR bunny flirting to get good coverage is nothing new as Lynn Zoch revealed at the International History of Public Relations conference last week.  Her analysis of the image of PR within the New York Times (1904-1934) included an article revealing PR agents employed pretty young women to deliver press releases by hand to newspapers – gaining immediate access to the editor’s office.

This should seem terribly chauvinistic and inappropriate in our modern times – but have we really moved so far when national newspaper editors and prime ministers move in the same social circles, including taking holidays together?

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15 thoughts on “Journalists and PR practitioners should never be friends

  1. Love the story about the pretty young women delivering news stories.

    I had a similar, but different idea – although still about the actual delivery of a news story, about getting factories of old people handwriting news releases.

    The idea was inspired when I asked a journalist friend to give me a bag of a typical day’s worth of news releases he received to use in my talk about the overload of material sent to journos. In the bag I discovered some examples of handwritten letters, evidently by the style of handwriting produced by aged hands.

    The lesson that hit me was that you read them thoroughly before discarding them – and so the added value of news releases more likley to be read than their typed counterparts.

    I never did develop the idea, so scores of eldelry persons were saved from being consigned to a handwriting factory…

    The opportunity still however, remains for the creative PR practitioner of how can you add value in the very delivery of your material

  2. Heather writes: ” . . .have we really moved so far when national newspaper editors and prime ministers move in the same social circles, including taking holidays together?”

    No, and in fact in this country (USA) we would be right back with Benjamin Sonnenberg, who cultivated the rich and powerful and considered himself their social equal. “Always live better than your clients” was his motto, and the title of an excellent biography by Isadore Barmash.

    Sonnenberg receives little mention in the PR texts and none in Stewart Ewen’s oft-acclaimed book about PR, but he was one of the most influential practitioners of the first half of the 20th century. Although he started as a street-guy publicist, when he became established he would deal only at the top of the organization. If a mere vice president called him to discuss something, he would simply hang up.

    IMHO, that was his signal contribution to the business. How many PR people can claim to operate that way today?

  3. A relationship goes two ways. Journalists (‘the fourth estate’) should also keep their distance from power.

    An interesting example of how this works can be heard and seen on the BBC at present as its news reporters interview their own managers over the move to Salford. There have been some surprisingly tough questions.

  4. Andy – I would be in favour of PR officers having to hand write copies of every release to send to journalists as it would undoubtedly cut down the amount of spam that is all to easy to send via electronic media! Even better if it improves hand-writing skills.

    Bill – I’m so pleased you mentioned Benjamin Sonnenberg as I had read about him when researching my paper for last week’s history conference. He sounded an amazing character and as you say, is one of the many missing from the simplistic historical narratives in PR textbooks. I seem to recall he was earning a fantastic sum of money even for his day.

    Richard – you are right, as I’m sure the media invited to Sonnenberg’s salon events in his grand New York mansion found out. There is always a price to pay for getting too close to power. I agree with you also that it is vital for credibility – of both journalist and PR practitioner – to manage personal integrity and be able to ask the difficult question without fear of being compromised by friendship.

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  6. Just to clarify on the above pingback from Ged Carroll blogging at PRWeek – my comments in this post are about muddling friendship with professional relationships. He seems to think that this post is about control – which is not mentioned, although ethical considerations are. Likewise, he reminds of the importance of listening and having media contacts – neither of which I have argued against here. The clue is in the title – it is the issue of confusing friendship for a business relationship where trouble lies as we see in the current case of UK politicians and media.

  7. I think the real issue here is objectivity. I wouldn’t say that it’s impossible for journalists and PR consultants not to be cordial/friendly, as long as both sides of the equation respects that the other has a job to do. Is it really so much about “agendas” (though I concede that both sides have them) as it is about expectations? I have several friends in the media, and when I have a pitch I feel is appropriate for them I do contact them. However, I don’t expect that just because we’re “friends” that they are going to do a story, or that the story they do will be all in my favour, and I never expect a journo friend to cover something not in his/her scope/interest just because we have a personal relationship.

    In other industries (law, sports, politics, etc.), people can stand on opposite sides of an issue, or be competing against each other, without losing sight of the need to balance objectivity with civility or personal feelings. Don’t all of us have friends in the business that are often competitors…we’re either representing competing brands, or competing for the same brief? For that matter, I have clients that I am friendly with outside of the work environment, but I don’t expect that to be a reason for them not to voice an opinion or concern about their account. It’s the same dynamic at play, you have to be able to separate personal and professional.

    I think the key is in building respect and dialogue with media contacts. It’s the only way to break past the over-dramatised stereotype of the love/hate relationship between media and PR.

  8. Meg – thank you for your comment and I certainly wasn’t advocating a lack of friendliness or cordiality in relationships; indeed, courtesy and professionalism are essential when dealing with anyone, in my view.

    I accept that managing expectations is key in any relationship, but if these aren’t explicit, then it is easy for one party to have different expectations.
    Also, we tend to rely on our personal moral compass in these matters – and although most of us will not seek to exploit our friendships, there is a very fine ethical line that we often tread. There is also the issue of perceptions and how our actions can be viewed. Being transparent is often the best approach here, but when dealing with friends, so much of what is said and done will be in private and so bypass official channels which could be open to interpretation.

    I am not arguing against civil professional relationships, or indeed, including some social contact with journalists, with clients (or colleagues within organizations) and as you say, competitors. Indeed, I am a director of a professional PR body, which has a remit to help members work more effectively by organizing networking opportunities. We have excellent working relationships with our specialist media and regularly meet both formally and informally. But I have seen issues arise, particularly when some people do not operate to the same ethical standards or in the case of young PR practitioners who may not understand how to separate personal and professional.

    We live in an increasingly relaxed world and I see it a lot with my PR university students who are unfamiliar with drawing boundaries. The social media world of easy “friendships” and sharing personal information in public spaces brings another dynamic. I’m not a big fan of regulations and guidelines, but do urge some caution in respect of being best buddies without considering the possible problems that can arise.

  9. Heather — Just wanted to say that I wasn’t disagreeing with your point of view, it has definite validity. I guess it’s the root of the Journalist – PR dynamic that continues to frustrate me most after more than 20-years in the business. Media claims they love to hate (or hate to love us) because we fail to pitch to them properly, but on the flip side, through a US-based PR org I sit on the board of I arrange numerous lunches and panel events where media is invited to come in and tell us exactly what we can do to interact with them more effectively, and many of them do a poor job of clarifying what they want versus what they don’t. Ironic really, we’re all in the business of communication and yet apparently have an irresolvable inability to do so consistently. But I still believe that we get it right more often than we get it wrong.

    I do wholly support the need for better instruction for PR students. The ever-changing social/digital landscape, and the impact of media debacles like the News of the World, require giving students a better set of guidelines for protocol and oversight.

  10. Thanks Meg – we find that either journalists focus on very detailed issues (I don’t want to drive more than this distance to a launch event) or what one wants, another one definitely doesn’t! But as you say, overall we find the UK motoring media at least are generally positive about the support they obtain from my PR colleagues.

    I think I will write a post about “etiquette” for PR practitioners as a guide for students at some point.

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  12. Good blog! I really love how it is easy on my eyes as well as the details are well written. I am wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your rss feed which ought to do the trick! Have a nice day!

  13. As a journalist now in a Public Affairs position, I believe that my understanding having “been there, done that” allows me to make sure I work in extra time for the broadcasters to get extra b-roll and have a variety of shots and to take into consideration background noise and lightening. Likewise, I understand they have a deadline and I have a message that I need to get out.

    I think there is a huge difference between friendship and being professional. At the end of the day, we each have our own separate mission to accomplish.

  14. Joyce – thanks for your comment. Having direct experience is always helpful, but everything you state about understanding the needs of broadcasters should apply to anyone working in PR. I believe that you should always work with journalists to understand their specific needs and learn also from that experience. The real advantage you should have is the practical experience of the skills involved in the visual and other aspects of broadcast narrative. Again, agree with you that there is difference between friendship and being professional, and you can certainly be professional friends. But it is remembering the separate missions that is vital so boundaries are not blurred.

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