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
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
1 Don't force friendships
2 Don't send elaborate or expensive gifts
3 Don't spam journalists with unpersonalized and irrelevant press