'Deep Throat' revelation reinforces the role of trust on both sides of media relationship

PRWeek's editorial team occasionally receives anonymous e-mails passing along some scuttlebutt about an agency hiring or firing people, closing an office, or losing some account. (The latter, alas, is the most infrequent.)

PRWeek's editorial team occasionally receives anonymous e-mails passing along some scuttlebutt about an agency hiring or firing people, closing an office, or losing some account. (The latter, alas, is the most infrequent.)

A lot of what passes over this transom is often old, inside-baseball gossip. The worst of it is clearly motivated by hidden agendas rather than the sincere desire to expose bad practices. That is not to say we don't glean the occasional nugget from them. And, of course, the less outlandish claims are duly investigated. But there is naturally something suspect about an unasked-for screed from a nameless and faceless contact. Many of these missives will close with the accusation that, to paraphrase, "Nobody in the trade media has the guts to run this kind of stuff." Well, right back at you, pal.

How perfect that last week's revelation of Deep Throat's identity came out in the aftermath of the Newsweek retraction. Superficially, it is validation that some things - many of them really important things - can only be told to a reporter under strict confidentiality. But the primary takeaway for PR pros, across the entire series of events, is a greater understanding of the crucial importance of relationship building in media engagements.

The chasm between the anonymous e-mail sender and the legitimate contact who wishes to remain nameless is vast. The former neither demands nor instills trust in the media outlet, looking only to score a "hit" and move on. But a source with a legitimate story to tell will not only look for the best outlet to carry that information, but also the person who will faithfully trustee it.

Bob Woodward and Mark Felt were acquainted with each other before the secrets began to spill. The New York Times missed out because of the absence of that connection. As a Washington Post staff writer put it last week in a web chat on the subject, "[Felt] had very few options for pushing the investigation, but one was his relationship with a relentless young reporter at the Post, Bob Woodward. I don't think he had that sort of relationship with anyone at the Times."

PR pros are not pushing state secrets, of course, and Felt is no communications professional. But this part of the story offers compelling perspectives on the fundamental rules of media engagement. Like the anonymous poison-pen e-mail, masses of sometimes poorly-written and untargeted press releases shoved into the in-boxes of reporters will often be treated with the same level of contempt by reporters, even when the rare, useful gem emerges.

Conversely, a contact who has established a relationship with the reporter in advance of building a story inherently has more gravitas. Moreover, the trust that builds between reporter and source - PR pro or otherwise - does not only depend on the sensational nature of the story, but also on its relevance and veracity.

Whether the story is about the launch of a new video game, the war in Iraq, or secrets in the Oval Office, trust between reporters and contacts is paramount. PR pros, who often serve as the primary gatekeepers of reporter relationships, must remember that there is no substitute for the rapport that comes from personal and honest transactions with the media.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in