Saturday, February 10, 2007

Talking to PR people about media (June 2003)

There is an abyss that divides journalists and public relations people. They work closely, yet they often seem at odds with each other. Journalists tend to treat PR people with suspicion, dismissing them as ‘flaks’, yet a good number of journalists cross over into the PR field at some point in their careers.

In the late 80’s and early 90s, when I worked as a reporter and managing editor with “The Sunday Express”, too many PR people were obstructive, rude and generally not helpful. Their objective, it seemed, was to deflect us from the person or information we needed, rather than assist in the process.

One can sympathize with this to a point, given that we were usually calling about some controversy or other, but there really is no excuse for – and nothing to be gained by – treating journalists poorly.

In this column, I examine this uneasy relationship from the communicators’ perspective. (I will get the journalists’ point of view in a future installment). The good news is, the PR practitioners’ relationship with journalists seems to have progressed over the last decade or so.

I received input from five communicators in researching this column, and all expressed mature and insightful points of view about their dealings with news media.

As the communications director with the Newfoundland Association of Public Employees (NAPE) and a former PR person with the provincial government, Judy Snow is seasoned in her dealings with media.

“I was told when I started working for NAPE that it was impossible to get a positive news story covered,” she said. “I have found our province’s media to be very open to stories about working people. I try to provide honest information in an ethical manner, but I make no pretense about my bias – I am advocating for NAPE members.”

Snow said she has “great respect” for reporters and appreciates the deadlines they deal with. “Every once in a while I’ll growl at an individual reporter or a reporter will growl at me. We’re all big boys and girls, and we get over it.”

“For me, the biggest potential area of confusion is helping a reporter – especially a new one – distinguish between when I’m merely providing background information and when I’m speaking for the union. I like to be told when comments are going to be attributed to me.”

Derek Yetman is the communications director with the Institute for Marine Dynamics and a former journalist. In his 20-plus years as a communicator, Yetman said he has never encountered “rudeness” from reporters, though persistence is not unusual.

“My experience has been overwhelmingly positive. Having been a print and electronic journalist, I know exactly where reporters are coming from... My job is to get them the information they need – not to hide or disguise it.”

Yetman said he does suggest story ideas to journalists on occasion, but will never engage in “hard sell” tactics. “I generally point out why the item might be of interest to the public. The journalist or editor can take that under advisement in making a decision… The story should sell itself. If not, it isn’t much of a story.”

Lana Payne is another former journalist who now works in communications and research with the Fish Food and Allied Workers (FFAW/CAW), which represents about 20,000 people employed mainly in fish harvesting and processing. Because the fishery is such a contentious issue, there is a constant stream of interview and information requests from media.

The FFAW is also a “social” union, Payne said, which means they feel compelled to comment on broader societal issues such as minimum wage laws, poverty, health care and education. She said that these themes are not as “interesting” to media as other, more controversial stories.

“I find that reporters like stories about people. They also, and understandably so, like it when there is conflict. It’s up to us to make something interesting. As a communicator, we should always be prepared to explain why something is important.”

Payne said she hasn’t experienced any “horror stories” with reporters. However, there have been some moments of absurdity. Payne said she took a call several years ago, during the so-called turbot war, from a British tabloid reporter who wanted to interview a fisher who had a relative who fought in World War II.

“I told the reporter this might be possible, but it might take a few calls… The reporter then went on to say that it would be nice if the relative was a father and it would be even better if the father died in the war. I quietly pointed out that many of these men were quite young when they went off to war and may not have had a chance to have had children and that it would be difficult to find someone who met these particular specifications.”

Not all mainland journalists are well informed about the fishery, Payne said, so she is quite patient in answering their questions. “I remember being a reporter and thinking it was more important to have the right information than to assume a question might sound stupid… I always say ‘please ask’.”

If there is an ‘extreme sport’ equivalent to PR work, Lynn Barter faced it last October during the 17-day strike of the Newfoundland and Labrador Medical Association, where she works as director of communications. A former journalist, Barter distinguished herself well during the strike.

“It was a very, very intense period. I don’t really have anything to compare it to. Even when I worked for government, I was never the lead communicator during an intense period like that.”

The strike was difficult, Barter said, but it was also a “positive” experience.

“We were treated at all times with great fairness and objectivity. The coverage every day was quite balanced. For the most part, the media was open to what I call ‘added value’ stories. I always knew that, whenever I offered up one side of the story, it was their responsibility to get the other side. So that never bothered me.”

Media relations were critical during the strike, Barter said, because the NLMA had a “modest” budget compared to that of government. “If we hadn’t accessed that media coverage, no one would have heard the physicians’ point of view.”

Barter said she has never felt “challenged” or “ intimidated” by media. “I have had to take calls for different cabinet ministers during difficult times but I was always cordial. I’ve had times when I was asked a really tough question and had to say ‘No, I can’t answer that’… and given a reason. Reporters generally respect that. It’s their job to push me but they understand.”

Barter has noticed that some of her colleagues in communications are nervous or distrustful about media, particularly those with no direct media experience. “They have never worked in the media and have little exposure to how a newsrooms runs… They don’t understand that process and can be very intimidated by it.”

Constable Ernie Reckling of the RCMP frequently dons a communicator’s hat to address law enforcement issues. As a forensic collision reconstructionist, his job is to identify why people are injured and killed on our highways. When patterns emerge, he works to prevent further incidents by raising public awareness through media coverage.

However, the media don’t respond all the time to Reckling’s overtures, he said. When the findings of a study were released several weeks ago, he didn’t get “a single call” from reporters or editors.

“And I spent a lot of time preparing for those phone calls… There are a lot of times that I call media and they don’t respond.”

Most reporters, Reckling said, report what they feel the public wants to hear, not what it needs to hear. “We could talk about how many (preventable) deaths there are in North America every year in motor vehicle crashes, but all we’ve been hearing about is SARS.”

As an example, Reckling described a recent car accident where the vehicle was completely destroyed but the woman survived with minor bruises, because she was wearing her seat belt. “I sent out a picture and a story about that but no one covered it.”

Reckling said the media becomes obsessed with certain stories, such as 9/11, the war in Iraq and SARS, to the detriment of other important stories.

“Sometimes the media beats a story to death and other times, when it’s time to report something (important), they are just not interested. I find that if you really want to get the media to cover something, you have to aggressively seek out the person who is willing to do the story, and then everyone will jump on based on public reaction to that story.”

I have my own views on the evolution of the public relations profession and I will share these with you in a future column.

No comments: