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4 Things PR Professionals Need to Remember About Journalists

July 6, 2017 Jonathan Houghton

People in journalism like to jokingly refer to public relations as “the dark side,” but it’s not nearly that dramatic. I know because I’ve now experienced both professions from the inside.

I’m new to public relations, having worked at the Bradford Group for about five months now. Before that, much of my career was spent at newspapers and magazines.

The truth is, both professions attract decent, smart people who understand and value the power of language. Journalists and PR professionals each have a role to play, and each benefits from a healthy relationship with the other.

Journalists Media Figures

A healthy relationship between journalists and PR professionals can benefit both parties.

However, journalists and PR professionals obviously have different objectives. Sometimes those objectives run parallel to each other. Other times, they’re completely at odds.

So, adjusting to this environment and my new responsibilities has required me to rewire my brain a little bit. And as I get further away from journalism, I realize that I’m starting to think like a PR professional at the expense of thinking like a journalist. That’s good — to a point.

Before my former self completely disappears, though, I think it might have a few useful pieces of advice to offer my current self.

1. Public relations professionals are usually a total afterthought.

In a newsroom, there are a million things to keep track of. Staff sizes have shrunk dramatically, so reporters are pumping out more material than ever. Editors are concerned about getting the latest stories published online before tending to the next day’s paper or that night’s newscast. And that’s just on a regular day that doesn’t have any kind of breaking news.

Here in my new career, I do occasionally feel myself taking it personally when I don’t get a response from journalists, until it suddenly hits me: I’ve already forgotten what it’s like. So when interacting with journalists, I try to remember that PR professionals are just one part of a much larger machine. They’ll work with us when they can, if it makes sense to.

2. Journalists’ No. 1 pet peeve is when PR professionals don’t do their research.

When I’m contacting journalists to try to interest them in a story, chances are I’ve never met them and maybe never will. There’s no reason not to be friendly, as long as you realize that for journalists, there might be nothing more irritating than a friendly PR person who doesn’t know the first thing about what you do.

Take 30 seconds before you send that email to make sure you’re not pitching a health care story to an entertainment writer. And don’t, ever ever ever, misspell their name or the name of their publication. During my time as a reporter, I received plenty of emails addressed to  “John Houtman” or something similar, and they’d usually go straight to the trash.

3. Sometimes, PR professionals magically become the answer to a journalist’s prayers.

I’ve experienced this phenomenon both as a journalist and as a PR professional. As a writer, I would occasionally be working on a story and be stumped in trying to find a worthwhile source, with a deadline looming, and then voila — an email would pop into my inbox offering exactly what I needed. Yes!

More recently, I’ve had a journalist tell me that my pitch landed at just the right time to fit into a story that she was working on. In PR, there’s a lot to be said for preparedness and the ability to anticipate a need, but I think there’s also an element of luck in there somewhere.

4. PR professionals are looking for good coverage for their clients. Journalists are looking for a good story.

Journalists recoil at anything that sounds like a commercial, but sometimes PR professionals, in our zeal to get the word out about our clients, forget that. Especially when the client’s specialty is something very specific, it’s easy to overlook that most people don’t have the same level of familiarity that we do, and might not care as much — unless we figure out an imaginative way to get them to.

So the challenge is to constantly reach for those inspired, unexpected story ideas that thread the needle — giving readers a fresh, interesting narrative to grasp onto, but also involving our client in an unforced way.

In other words, we have to get creative. And as a person whose career has been spent largely in the creative realm, that’s a challenge I can get behind.

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