Thursday, March 16, 2006

Reporters are not our friends

With a great deal of trepidation, I am going to dissent with something Shel Holtz wrote:

Back when the Internet was just a government-funded computing project, effective media relations was all about building relationships with reporters. Sure, organizations sent press releases, but the real work went into Lexis-Nexis searches of a reporter’s articles, analysis of the reporter’s interests, and personal contact to discuss what you might be able to do for the reporter. The reporters who gave my companies the best coverage where those I had lunch with, contacted with leads that crossed my desk but had nothing to do with my client, got to know on a personal level.

When media relations responsibility was first handed to me, I called my friend Wilma Matthews—one of the best in the business—and asked for advice. “Your job,” she said, “is to make the reporter’s life easier.”

I agree with almost all of this. Certainly you want to read a reporter’s past work. Certainly you want to send reporters tips that will interest them, whether or not such tips involve your client. And it is most certainly our job to make it easy for a reporter to cover our clients and get the story on deadline.

Where I draw the line is being friends with reporters (as distinct from having friendly relationships). The public is best served if there is a certain creative friction between flacks and hacks. We each have our role in the ecosystem of public debate and we get into trouble if we become too chummy with one another.


SB said...

This is an interesting post, Alice. As it turns out, because I was a reporter, and then worked in corp comm for a media company, I have a lot of friends who are reporters. And while, on balance, this helps me quite a bit in my job, there are two sides to these relationships. For example, a friend who is a reporter MIGHT not take a pitch as well as a complete stranger -- because they may think you are "using" them to get coverage. It's tricky stuff. That's why I always tell my clients that the STORY they have to pitch is far more important than who they pitch it to. So while I have lots of relationships myself, I make sure they understand that -- in my humble opinion -- PR firms that try to sell themselves purely based on their media relationships are charlatans. IMHO.

Alice said...

As you suggest, sometimes your friendship can work against you; it is a tricky relationship. I just think it cannot be said strongly enough that we are here for our clients and society is best served if we remember that.

Shel said...

Hmm. I'm not sure I ever said that reporters should be your friends. But I did believe you should have a relationship. They should know you; you should know them. When you call, they'll talk to you because they know you and they know you understand them, their interests, their job. I wouldn't go out with our wives or go to a movie. But getting together every so often to talk about their issues, challenges, and professional needs can go a long way...far better than cold-calling a reporter you've never spoken with.

Alice said...

Maybe I am too much of a purist about this. When I was a sales rep I made it my custom to never buy lunch for a prospect, my late father was the same way.

Yes, I have much better luck with placing stories with reporters who know me than ones who do not. It is just human nature, but I am very leery of chumminess with reporters. Maybe because I am based in the DC area, but I have see too much harm come from that.

Shel said...

Again, I have to insist there's a difference between building a relationship and being chummy. And by the way, having lunch with a reporter doesn't mean I ever bought the reporter lunch. We always split the tab.