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How to work effectively with journalists

Posted on 5/01/2015 by Christie Patten in Media relations whatsnew
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Working with journalists can be an easy, enjoyable experience when done right, but a total disaster for you and your business if done incorrectly. Cole Lawson Senior Consultant and former News Ltd journalist Nathan Scholz shares his tips for maximising the journalist-PR relationship.

Working with journalists can be an easy, enjoyable experience when done right, but a total disaster for you and your business if done incorrectly. We often hear PR and journalism referred to as having a love-hate relationship, but they’re actually two sides of the same coin – with journalists and their media outlets on one side, and PR practitioners and their clients on the other. The two should work together in a professional, mutually beneficial relationship. Because let’s face it – we need each other.

One of the big questions asked of PR people is how we make sure clients get the best outcome from media relations? What are the best strategies for working with journalists so our messages get across on-point? Cole Lawson Senior Consultant and former News Ltd journalist Nathan Scholz shares his tips for maximising the journalist-PR relationship.

The hook.

Do you have a story to tell but are not sure how to tell it, or what will grab the attention of others? These issues are just some of those that come under the banner of public relations. It is the role of a PR professional to be able to identify activities and announcements people want to know about, and to take the information destined for a press release and make it genuinely newsworthy.

But what does that mean and how does that happen? A PR professional’s perspective on the most attention grabbing aspect of an issue, or hook, is wider than the average person’s.  A good PR person will start by asking the basics: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. The challenge is taking those basic questions and identifying what makes this ‘news’. How can we tell journalists and their audiences something they don’t already know?  How can this information become relevant and important to them – not just the people who work for this company?  What facts or context can I put around this announcement to make it consequential to a general audience? 

The answer often lies in taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture.  What’s happening in the news at the moment?  Which journalists are covering what topics?  What competition will this announcement create?  What problem does it solve? Whose back pocket will be affected?  What evidence is available?  Being able to answer these questions will enable a PR professional to ferret out the best possible ‘hook’ for your story.

The pitch.

There is some debate between the journalism and PR industries about the merits of the ‘pitch’. Traditionally, when pitching to journalists, PR people attempt to ‘sell’ their client’s story to the media in the most attractive way possible. But if you have to ‘sell’ a journalist, you’ve already lost them.

Newsrooms face increasing challenges of producing more content with fewer resources on tighter deadlines. Journalists simply don’t have time to review lengthy, ill-advised proposals from PR people with a dubious understanding of the needs of media outlets. Journalists instead come to trust and rely on those with whom they have developed a professional relationship, founded on a mutual respect and understanding of each others’ roles.

What have you got to offer them? 

It's important to remember that this isn't about getting the journalist to do something for you. The purpose is to provide the journalist something of value – a tip, information, content, interviewees, pictures, or vision.  The PR professional should be providing the journalist something of genuine public interest or benefit, not just something that benefits the PR professional’s client. Giving a journalist something of value helps them do their job. They’re then more likely to remember you and take your call next time. 

It is critical to do your research before approaching a journalist or news outlet – what articles did that journalist publish or present the day before?  What are the topics of interest to the journalist, why is this story a good match for them?

When it works.

When the day arrives for the interview, photoshoot or filming, a PR professional understands how to facilitate the journalist’s needs, while helping their client put their best foot forward. They will ensure the journalist isn’t hindered, with multiple unnecessary people crowding the area. The most off-putting situation for a journalist trying to do their work efficiently is confronting multiple PR representatives, the interview ‘talent’, multiple colleagues and the interview subject’s family all wanting to watch the news in action. It is time consuming and frustrating for all.

The talent needs to be briefed on the interview as a whole, not just prepared with key messages to repeat ad nauseum. If the subject has not undertaken media training, they will have (at the least) practised and rehearsed an interview. They should also be briefed on the basics; where to look during a television interview, not to rush their answers and to speak succinctly.  It’s important to be clear on the expectations of the journalist and the talent; what kind of interview it is, the key audience, the format, the essential takeaway.

You can not expect to control the outcome, but with preparation, advice and guidance you can expect to play a role in the result.     

For an experienced PR practitioner this should all be second nature. They will follow up to ensure the journalist has everything they need, details of where to get anything they don’t yet have and then let them get back to work.

A few things to remember:  

- Only tell a journalist  what they don’t already know

- Think realistically about who your news will affect

- Present the genuinely interesting and useful information and the reason it’s significant

- You need evidence.  Provide statistics, research and case studies to back up your message

- Keep it simple and make it quick

- Always have something valuable to offer e.g. photos or vision

- Give a journalist space to do their job

- You will not have total control.

Is this second nature to you? How have your experiences been in working with journalists?
Do you have a story of interest or benefit to the public? Talk to us and we can provide expert guidance to help you.