PR TECHNIQUE MEDIA RELATIONS: Building relationships withreporters

The sweaty-palmed moment of first contact with a journalist - like

trying to get the prom date of your dreams - is only the first hurdle.

Eleanor Trickett discovers how to ensure the PR pro and the reporter are

still dating in six months.

As heart-thumping as it is, once the first move has been made, a whole

new set of etiquette issues rears its head. How can you nurture and

maintain a relationship that is based on what is likely a considerable

imbalance in power?

First things first. It's essential to be objective about how real your

relationship actually is. Travis Van, media relations manager at San

Francisco venture capital specialist Venture PR Group, notes, "every PR

professional says they have 'relationships' with the top journalists.

But what actually is this 'relationship?' One call? One interview? If

you were to ask these same journalists, they would say that they did not

have one with the PR person."

The key to a successful relationship, of course, is symbiosis rather

than parasitism - or, even worse, delusional, stalker-like tenacity.

Proving your knowledge and worth even before you ask anything of the

journalist is the best way of getting the first pitch considered. That,

according to Bill Ryan, founder and partner of Niehaus Ryan Wong,

involves "taking time to understand what the journalist writes about,

then offering yourself as a resource - not trying to make a sales call."

It also involves reading as much of the journalist's work as you


Once that pitch is made, the way is clear to develop a relationship

there and then, provided you follow the entire process through. Jim

Moock, SAE at Peppercom in New York, suggests going the extra mile:

"Read their articles to determine their style, and once you know what

they like to include or reference - such as associations, analysts, and

consumers - have them ready and in your pitch."

Early conversations with journalists will tell you not only how and when

they prefer to be contacted (and if they want to hear from you regularly

to catch up, or only when you have news to share), but also whether they

enjoy a social chat or want to get straight into the business at


It's possible to form a working relationship with either type.

Preston Kirk, founder of Kirk Public Relations in Atlanta, says that

face-to-face contact whenever possible is a fast track to trust and


"Meet at a trade show, news conference, or drop off from a vacation in

the reporter's area for an hour or less," he advises. "It helps to know

what each other looks like in this age of impersonal connections."

But while friendships can develop, account supervisor Paula Greear at

Grant Jacoby in Chicago, warns, "You must demonstrate respect for

journalists' objectivity and professionalism. Don't try to make them

allies in your cause, for though you may establish friendly relations

with reporters, they are neither your friends, nor enemies."

The same applies with lunches, perks, and gifts. David Shein, a managing

director specializing in media relations at RF Binder Partners, advises,

"I've become friends with some folks on the 'other side,' but it's your

job to protect your client and to protect yourself. To buy them gifts

and take them out to expensive meals is to purchase them. It could

really backfire on you."

Another perk given to trusted media contacts is an exclusive, or an

advance on a story. A journalist hankering for this can be very

seductive, but this is where promises are often made under duress - and

are later broken.

"Don't burn anyone," Patricia Priola from Lois Paul & Partners


"Whenever possible, give all outlets a fair chance at covering a story,

avoiding exclusives or advances."

Giving all outlets the story is one thing, but there's no point in

spending billable hours getting to know journalists if you're just going

to fire out a catch-all press release via e-mail. Personalization gets

easier once the PR exec gets to know journalists' beats. And further

inquiry into what other stories they're working on might uncover more

ways in which you can help them - and perhaps even introduce a new


The same goes for stories you hear that will interest your contacts.

Steve Rubel, manager of client services at CooperKatz in New York, says,

"When I spot news or trends, I might send a reporter a heads-up e-mail

to let them know about it." For while PR execs are expected to keep

track of every trade publication in their client's field and every

article in the mainstream press, a journalist can't always be that

widely read.

These endeavors may seem like a one-way street, but that can change

after time. Sometimes this takes years of groundwork, explains Tony

Signore, EVP, international at Alan Taylor Communications. The New

York-based agency has been working with Master-Card's sponsorship of the

soccer World Cup across 70 countries since 1989.

"Just before the 1994 World Cup in the US," he says, "dozens of media

members in Europe wanted to come here to visit some of the host cities,

get a handle on US coverage of soccer, and see how sponsors felt about

the World Cup coming here. Through our years of working with them when

the competition was held in Europe, they came straight to us. We

couldn't charge this work to our client - and we were even talking about

other sponsors. But we worked outside hours to help, and this has paid

huge dividends in these different markets. When we've needed some

assistance since, maybe in understanding how an initiative may work in

that market, they've come right back and helped us."

But don't expect this glorious symbiosis straight away. Patience is a

virtue. "They will call you," says Mark Marymee, president of Marymee PR

in Oakland, CA. "It may not be exactly when you expect it or want it to

happen, but they will call. I initially met with Thomas Fogerty of USA

Today in June 2000 about my company then, Homegain. Then nothing, until

2001. But then Homegain was included in two big stories, and traffic to

our website shot off the chart both times."

Like any relationship, you can't expect a home run on the first



1 Do be honest, responsive, and realistic about what you can offer

2 Do respect deadlines and preferred contact method

3 Do contact them with stories and trends that aren't necessarily about

your client

1 Don't force friendships

2 Don't send elaborate or expensive gifts

3 Don't spam journalists with unpersonalized and irrelevant press


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