The Agency Business: Becoming friendly with reporters, but remaining professional

Breaking down barriers between PR pros and journalists does not necessarily entail throwing caution - or common sense - to the wind.

Breaking down barriers between PR pros and journalists does not necessarily entail throwing caution - or common sense - to the wind.

When it comes to establishing good relationships with reporters, PR pros will use any tool at their disposal. Common courtesy and common sense both go a long way, but no reporter can truly be considered a "close contact" unless a personal connection has been established.

What that means in practical terms is a good deal of schmoozing. Tactics range from "get to know you" lunches to meet-and-greet events to in-office visits, but the purpose of each is to break down the inherent wall between a reporter and a PR pro in order to more effectively advocate a client's interests. The entire process, though, must be handled delicately.

Many PR pros are former journalists and have tangled with the issue from both sides of the fence. Rosemarie Yu worked at the National Law Journal for six years before moving to Edelman, where she's a senior account supervisor. She says that her media experience earned her lifelong friends, but that she also has a keen idea of how reporters work.

"Always be professional," she advises. Yu attends weddings and other engagements with friends who are still in journalism, but she tries not to let her guard down too much.

"You have a fiduciary duty to your clients," she says. "Just because you're at a social situation doesn't mean a reporter won't hear something good and investigate it."

Joan Stewart, a former editor of the Milwaukee Business Journal who now publishes the "Publicity Hound" tip sheet for clients seeking media coverage, has even written articles on the fine art of lunch meetings with reporters. The mantra of a PR person in such situations should be, "How can I help you?" Stewart says.

In order to be sure that you don't place the reporter in an awkward situation, Stewart recommends that you do your homework on an outlet's ethics policies. Many papers and large magazines have strict prohibitions against sources paying for something even as small as a meal.

"Don't dive for the check," she advises. Instead, before the check reaches the table, simply ask, "How would you like to handle this?"

She echoes Yu's tip about being cautious around reporters, but takes it a step further. In what many veterans of the schmoozing circuit might find to be a comical piece of advice, Stewart warns against drinking any alcohol at media functions.

That's right, not a single drop.

"Loose lips sink ships," she reasons. As a side benefit, though, tee-totaling obviates the need for Tic Tacs. As Stewart points out, "Wine breath ... it's a turnoff."

The jury is out on whether her drinking advice will catch on, but her ethical tip on paying the bill is simply good sense. David Zweifler, an AVP at GS Schwartz who worked as a Bloomberg reporter before crossing over, remembers that at his media job, "If they found out somebody bought you a drink, they'd fire you."

When the situation is as simple as that, the best move is not to even hint at a bravado, "I insist" type of move.

The best approach might be as easy as your mom told you on the first day of school: Just be yourself. "A lot of PR people approach socializing with reporters like some guys approach [dating] - 'What cologne should I wear?'" jokes Zweifler. A better idea is to establish yourself as a consistent, reliable source who is not hell-bent on forcing a single client or story angle on a grudging journalist. And always, always, always be honest.

"If you snow a reporter," Zweifler says, "it's over. Don't even try."

Some agencies go so far as to bring reporters into their offices for introductory sessions. That's what Marianne O'Connor, CEO of Sterling PR, did more than two years ago, when she started the monthly "Media Intelligence" events that continue today. Each month, a different reporter comes in to meet agency personnel and educate them on what they can do to be of assistance.

"There are a lot of resources that give you the basic facts," O'Connor says. "But what we wanted to do is make sure we had better insight into what was top-of-mind for journalists."

Perhaps above all, both journalists and PR pros should keep in mind that, contrary to many ingrained beliefs, those on the other side are just human beings, not evil reptiles. Jon Harris, a voluble musician who also happens to be VP of media development and communications at Sara Lee, sums it up succinctly: "At the end of the day, reporters are real people," he says. "I have jammed with reporters."


Socializing with reporters

  • Learn about a media outlet's ethics policy before meeting a reporter

  • Allow personal relationships to grow naturally. Don't try to be a forced friend

  • Focus on helping a reporter, rather than aggressively pushing a client's story

  • Remember: You're always on the record, unless both parties have agreed otherwise

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