Improving how we interact with journalists

We know how important it is for our communications activities to be insight-led. But how about undertaking research of our own to understand where we can perform better?

Headshot black and white photo of HollyIn the spring I invested in Getting Chartered through the CIPR. As part of the process, you have to write a two-year development plan, which is assessed by your peers and charts the development work you will put in to maintain your Chartered Status.

To develop my plan, I reflected on my skills, my past career and my aspirations for the future and identified that it may serve me well to hone my media relation skills.

When I joined the communications industry, I sent press releases by post or fax, then followed up a few days later to see whether the journalist had received them and whether they would be using my article. You can hardly believe that is little more than a decade ago.

Since then, the world has changed significantly, news is not something that you create on the Monday and possibly see printed the following Monday, it’s immediate, ever changing and on-demand.

Although my skills and techniques have evolved with the evolution of new technologies, with the support of training courses and useful training guides, I have never had the opportunity to ascertain from my journalist colleagues whether I am doing things right – yes, I have always got good coverage, but I wanted to know if I am missing a trick.

So, in a very unscientific way, I contacted some of the journalists I have worked, bought them lunch and quizzed them on what they like, and what they don’t when it comes to working with PRs.

“Make journalists feel special”

We all know (or do we?), that media relations is about relationships. But I was shocked to learn that that is not the case for some PRs. Several of the people I spoke to told me that they regularly get emails featuring press releases that have been sent to a hundred other journalist. How do they know? Well the PR has copied in their full distribution list in the address bar of the email! At first, I thought this was a rooky mistake, but there are some really senior people doing this!

“Send me something relevant to my publication”

Sitting alongside this bad practice is sending journalists every press release you ever write, even if it is not relevant to their publication.

“Get to know me, treat me like a human but don’t be over familiar”

Journalist are people too. It sounds basic, but get to know your journalists, meet up with them, find out what they like, what they are looking for, what key issues are on their agenda.

Supporting this, when you are sending over copy or a press release a personal email goes a long way. But please, do not start your email “Happy Friday”, for one journalist, who shall remain unnamed, it is the quickest way for your email to be deleted!

Make it easy for me to get in touch

I was surprised to hear that many organisations don’t have contact details for the communications team on their website. However, I am eternally grateful for this heads-up, as it made me check all my client’s websites as soon as I got home and I found at least one that didn’t have that – it was soon rectified.

Out of hours is also a big thing for journalists. Being able to contact you when there is a big story is really important, so it’s not only useful to share your out of hours contacts with them, but also ensure phones are appropriately diverted at the end of each working day to the on-call person.

 “Companies don’t sell stories, people do” (it’s the new version of that Goldie Lookin Chain Song!)

Every journalist I spoke to told me that they understand that we have a corporate story to tell, but the story is going to get more coverage and more hits on their site if it tells the human-interest side of the story. Although this seems obvious, this has really made me rethink my media approach, rather than thinking “Council Launches New Bus Service”, I am now thinking “Mavis can visit her grandchild in the next town thanks to new bus service”.

Contact me where I am

I once sent one of my team on a Guardian media day where they heard from a freelancer who didn’t like having stories pitched to her over the phone, but preferred people to get in contact through social media.

I thought this was fascinating, as this is a shift for me. However, I think this is definitely a horses for courses situation. Many of the journalists I spoke to wanted me to pick up the phone and talk to them, whereas some others said that they would prefer an email and the chance to get back in touch in their own time.

Probing this a bit deeper I found that it all goes back to relationships – if you have got to know your journalist and built a relationship with them, then you will know how to best contact them. If it’s a new relationship, be honest in your first communication, “Hi X, I hope you don’t mind me emailing you….” actually goes a long way.

Don’t be frightened to tell me the backstory

One of the best conversations I had was with a journalist I have known for many years now and trust explicitly. That trust has come from one particular situation where I gave him the heads up on a situation, before it unravelled, so he had time to prepare, but also so other things we were doing with his publication didn’t trip either of us up. At the time I was really worried about doing this, as I was fearful he would break the story well before it could be in the public domain. I shared this fear with him when we met and his response was brilliant. No journalist wants to be in the position that they are not going with the full fact or that they could damage a working relationship through going too early. Having the back story to a situation, even if they are not able to share it, helps them to develop their questions and also their approach to the overall article.

So, they are my findings. As I said, this wasn’t scientific, it was genuinely for my own development, but I think these are useful tips for anyone in PR. My advice is, it’s good to get back to basics and also don’t be scared to ask “Hey am I doing this right?” – you never know what you might discover about yourself.

Holly Bremner
This feature article written by Holly Bremner, Vice Chair of the CIPR Local Public Services Group, was first published on comms2point0. Holly owns HBComms and works for public and private sector clients.

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