When there’s no love between PR and journalists – a sorry Twitter tale

Last night I attended Meet the Professionals, an annual event at Bournemouth University where 1st year PR students get a chance to talk with local CIPR members.  One of the conversations I had related to being helpful to media and the value of the relationships being built, on both sides.

I’ve always made it a rule to answer media enquiries promptly (by which I mean immediately if the phone rings or an email arrives), even if I have to confirm that I am unable to help or give a time by which I will get back to the journalist.

So, I found this post National Post reporter has total Twitter melt down (via Judy Gombita) shocking in terms of the attitude of the PR person involved, and so many of the commentators.

Clearly not a lot of Valentine’s love going on there.  In fact, there appears to be an apparent lack of understanding between PR and journalists, or a change in attitude since I was taught about media relations. 

Some commentators seem to think it is okay to ignore a media call for 24 hours, or indeed, to see journalists as only worth talking with when you’ve a story to “sell”.  Journalists have deadlines and don’t expect to wait long for a PR person to call back – why should they?

I’m also rather bemused by the “shock, horror” expressed over a journalist swearing at a PR person.  It isn’t acceptable, or professional – and pretty stupid when recorded online via Twitter – and it certainly doesn’t contribute towards building relationships.

But, from the media’s perspective, the role of a PR person is to assist them in their jobs.  Being flippant via Twitter isn’t going to win anyone any friends.

A couple of days ago, I posted about the relationship between PR, journalist and client.  Would any client expect a PR person to ignore a call from a journalist?  Is that an acceptable strategy even if you’d prefer not to talk to someone, eg if the story is a bad news one?

I don’t think so.  Frankly, journalists have a job to do – which is to produce copy to increasingly short deadlines.  They frequently need the help of PR practitioners to check facts or get quotes, etc.  That’s our side of the deal – and what clients pay us to do.

The media are not there simply as outlets for organisations to get free publicity as some PR people seem to think.  But, they will report newsworthy or interesting stories – especially if you have a professional relationship meaning you don’t send journalists fluff or call them with meaningless spammy calls.  That’s also part of the deal.

I don’t expect journalists to swear at me – but appreciating the pressure they are under, I wouldn’t take it personally if they are short on the phone, especially if I’d been a bit slow in calling someone or promised something and not delivered (as if I would!) 

It is no wonder there is a joke that goes:

Q: How long does it take a PR person to change a light bulb?

A: I don’t know I’ll get back to you on that one.

If you find that funny, maybe PR isn’t the right career for you.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

9 thoughts on “When there’s no love between PR and journalists – a sorry Twitter tale”

  1. One of the important things to note about the story is that this WASN’T a PR person, according to her post here http://www.rocketwatcher.com/blog/2009/02/lessons-learned-from-a-twitter-meltdown.html

    I agree with you in principle, that working in PR means working with journalists, rather than just expecting them to work with you when you are looking for coverage. But I also think a modicum of mutual respect is a good place to start, especially when the issue is someone who doesn’t work in PR, being told off for not acting like they work in PR.

  2. Jon – of course, I agree that mutual respect is important and believe that is something I have gained with media over the years.

    Granted April isn’t a specialist PR person, but says her “specialty is bringing new technology solutions to market”, which must involve recognition that media relations are important in product launches.

    Do we cut her slack because a marketing person isn’t expected to understand the role of the media? Doubt her clients would think that.

    I would expect anyone to respect phone calls – especially from the media – and not score points via Twitter.

  3. Heather – I definitely agree, and personally I think posting something potentially damaging to Twitter without names doesn’t count as a win for anyone. A quick call back isn’t much to ask, and (I hope) most of us file it under the bare minimum for working with media.

    I’m not suggesting cutting anyone slack, but I am suggesting that telling someone off for a delay in returning a call is flatly unacceptable, despite the relationship between journalism and PR.

    I don’t approach your level of expertise, but in my short time I’ve noticed more and more people thinking this is something they can get away with, and that being treated with common decency is something PR people have to ‘earn’.

    That said, some things are best kept in the internal monologue, and off the internet.

  4. And of course if you’re quick off the mark and nurture the relationship, journalists will most likely think of you first when they need a quote or copy in future. My work at a private hospital was all the more rewarding if a journalist asked me to provide someone to quote rather than go to any of our competitors.

  5. Jill has nailed it: it’s not just this specific incident/story, it’s how the journalist/editor views the practitioners (whether PR or marketing) for the long-term.

    What I find disturbing in this incident (as well as another local one) is how those who embrace social media as their main forum for “communication and community building” seem, in turn, to feel that MSM media aren’t as worthy of attention or respect than they used to be. Because, after all, there are so many other options at getting a client’s “news” (read: product or service) out there. I think the recent twit-fight is an excellent case study about this.

    Besides you and some other PR practitioenrs, I also shared a link to this tale with some of my journalist colleagues (particularly the trade publications). Most wrote back saying how they are getting shafted, more and more, by practitioners who are slow to respond to requests for help with a story (i.e., as a subject expert), but who still scream when their news release for a current-client doesn’t get picked-up in the publication or via the media outlet. I am told that it’s worse than it’s ever been. Plus how many of those in social media feel free to kvetch their complaints through a variety of online channels.

    Of course, in future the journalist won’t feel kindly towards the practitioner (or his/her agency staff) if that is the case. Ergo, don’t go looking for lots of exposure in that publication/media outlet. At least not of the good kind. (You reap what you sow.)

    Finally, there were a ton of blog posts about the topic, but you might want to check out this one, in a MSM publication/written by a journalist: A tale of two faux pas: When transparency meets bad behavior

    (And just to be clear, I am not a proponent of swearing and/or bad behaviour/manners in any situation, this situation included.)

  6. Thanks all – Judy picks up on something that seems to be more and more common in the media relations world, a lack of understanding and respect on both sides for the role that the other is playing.

    Now everyone is taking their whinges and arguments into social/online media, we’re seeing bad practices (a lot of which have been around for ages) coming into the open.

    I’ve never understood where the expectation of PR practitioners in respect of getting coverage comes from (my understanding was always that you didn’t control the media but worked with them to maximise the potential and favourability of coverage).

    I’ve also never understood why PR practitioners talk about pitching the media – we aren’t telesales and shouldn’t behave like it either.

    My experience of working with the media has always been one of mutual respect. Sure there are times when both sides get frazzled, but understanding each other’s challenges has only ever improved the relationships. Then again, I was never taught the bad habits we see today – such as spamming releases or calling to follow up on their release.

    However, I did once forget to pick up some journalists (and their partners) arriving on a car launch at a local Scottish airport. After some quick thinking, they were soon on their way to the hotel, flowers arranged as an apology (which actually involved running a local village store for an hour whilst the shop owner made up bouquets) and a story on both sides that helped build long-lasting relationships.

    Shame neither party in this example will be recalling it as an amusing story.

  7. Hi,
    I loved this post and I’m glad you folks are having this conversation. I think the entire situation does shine a spotlight on the (seeminly disfunctional) relationship between pr and mainstream media.
    Just to make sure we all have the facts straight though – the fact that I am in marketing is entirely coincidental to the story. He was calling me to comment on a story about my ex-employer and I did return his call the moment I pick it up. Details here: http://www.rocketwatcher.com/blog/2009/02/unhappy-customers-complain.html

  8. April – thanks for stopping by and clarifying your position. Although the fact you are in marketing may have been coincidental in respect to the journalist seeking a comment about your ex-employer, it is not irrelevant in terms of your subsequent Twitter “conversation” with the journalist or the impact on your own reputation as a marketing consultant. There are certainly more professional and effective ways to respond to an irate journalist on the phone than flaming it via social media.

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