Jon M. Huntsman School of Business

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Friday, February 1, 2013

“Flack” Shares Five Secrets For Dealing With Reporters

I was raised, by a father who was a journalism professor, to be a newsman. It’s in my blood. When I go into a newsroom I can hear it calling to me. That’s real life. Like a window open on a cold day, I can feel it in my bones. For now, however, I am in public relations. I’m lucky that I get to work at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business where the importance of ethical leadership is emphasized and truth is considered central to any PR strategy. Not all in my profession are so blessed.

Many journalists, however, would still call me a “flack.” It’s supposed to be derogatory but it doesn’t bother me. In fact, I’d have that as part of my title on my business card if I could.
Since I’ve been working in public relations I’ve been to conferences and been involved in situations where people try to figure out formulas or approaches to motivate journalists to behave properly. For those who have never worked in a newsroom on a daily paper, I guess the inexact science of working with reporters can appear baffling.

So, I thought I would share five simple tips that can help you be more effective if you ever need to deal with the press.

  1. Realize that you are not at the center of the world. Each day when most reporters get in they are under pressure to deliver two or three stories, regardless of how well they did the day before. If you have news that’s worth covering, it will have to compete with whatever else is on their plate. While it may be true that Normon Foddlebaum has won an award that is in his world is the equivalent of an Oscar, that doesn’t mean that your news won’t be trumped by someone or something else that day that is more pressing or interesting.

  2. Overall, journalists don’t have a huge bias to the left or the right. They do, however, have a bias toward the negative. Is that bad? Not necessarily. If they do a big story on someone being mugged on Main Street, be grateful. It means that such a thing is still considered unusual. In New York it probably wouldn’t make the paper. In general, reporters get more reward for unearthing corruption, dirt, and scandal then they do for writing about awards, happy faces, and balloons. And while you may not be willing to admit it, a story about the local principal being arrested is more likely to draw you in than a story about him being named administrator of the year. That’s just life.

  3. Don’t even try to manipulate journalists. Treat them with respect and try to understand their world. Don’t think you can trick them into running an inflated story or massage an issue by hiding key facts. They are smart and they have absolutely no use for manipulative, dishonest people as sources.

  4. When they call, they need help now, as in within the hour. If they tell their editor that they have a story for the day and then they suddenly can’t get the interview they need, life gets very uncomfortable for them. The rest of us operate in a world where we think up work today and finish it four days or even two weeks from now. They don’t have that luxury. Everything is due now.

  5. When you write a press release, write it in news style. Follow Associated Press rules. Make it something they could cut and paste into a story if they wanted to. If you really want Normon Foddlebaum to have his day in the sun, don’t fill your release with fluffy, unattributed statements about how great he is. I have rewritten hundreds of press releases as a reporter and I was shocked at how few even came close to being usable. You know why that is? It’s because PR people write press releases to please their bosses. That’s where the reward is for them but if your release only succeeds in annoying reporters and editors before it is deleted, then you are wasting everyone’s time. 

So, it’s not that complicated. You just have to be honest and treat reporters like real people who are under unbelievable daily stress to find and report the news. Sure they annoy, pester and torment us but that’s part of their job. As humorist Peter Dunne once said of newspapers, they “confront the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Once you understand that things start to make more sense. Then you’ll begin understand why you can never be completely comfortable when dealing with the press and why that’s okay.

— Steve Eaton

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