PR TECHNIQUE: Repairing relationships with reporters

If a relationship with a journalist goes sour, saying sorry is only the first step. Every situation differs, but Matthew Creamer finds that gestures speak louder than words.

If a relationship with a journalist goes sour, saying sorry is only the first step. Every situation differs, but Matthew Creamer finds that gestures speak louder than words.

Imagine Dave Itzkoff's surprise when, strolling by a newsstand, he saw a story about a celebrity he'd just profiled for his own publication advertised on the cover of his magazine's biggest rival. Itzkoff, an associate editor at Spin, first fumed, and then investigated the matter. It turned out that the PR person who got him the interview did the same thing for Rolling Stone. Worse yet, the offender, though contrite, didn't even have a good explanation. "Everybody fell back on the excuse that I was never promised an exclusive," he says. "But still, you don't pitch the same story to Spin and Rolling Stone." Clear as the slight was (after all, the PR person did break a common-sense ground rule of the journalist-PR professional relationship), there was no clear way out of the awkward situation. The apology was a good start, but after that, it got muddy. And, Itzkoff says, turning an already embarrassing situation into a Hallmark moment wouldn't have made it any easier: "It would have been weird if he had sent me flowers or a fruit basket, or something tangible." Even the best professional relationships have rough patches, and this is especially so between reporters and PR practitioners. In a fast-paced, high-stakes, competitive environment, there are ample opportunities for things to go wrong. The gamut of screw-ups ranges from minor miscommunications to out-and-out mistakes that come back to haunt. Sometimes it's your fault, sometimes it isn't. There are steps that one must take to endure these times. Fruit baskets aren't one, but gestures like a meaningful apology, a good lunch, and an especially provocative pitch, or an exclusive are. "There isn't a magic formula," says Lucy Allen, vice president of Lewis PR. "You have to roll with it. And the first thing to do is apologize." This, Allen says, doesn't mean a long, syrupy letter or rambling phone call. Instead, it's a pointed e-mail, followed by some action that will help the journalist do their job better in the future. "Don't labor the point with long explanations and repeated phone calls," she says. "The last thing they want is anything they feel wastes more of their time." Allen also recommends not taking the situation personally, along with keeping composed during the crisis - something she feels that communications professionals should be able to do. "PR people aren't there to preside over calm waters. [They] can deal with it." However, the primary step is taking action of some sort. No matter how bad the falling out, there's no point in cashing in your chips on the relationship. Both sides acknowledge - journalists with a twinge of frustration, and PR people with a sigh of relief - that most relationships can make it, if only because the relationships are so necessary. "You have to work very hard to end up with irreparable damage to a relationship." Allen says. James Ledbetter is proof of this. In his book Starving to Death on $200 Million: The Short, Absurd Life of The Industry Standard, he offers numerous tales of PR practitioners behaving badly. One of the more startling examples is when Ledbetter, then the New York bureau chief for the Standard, asked a PR contact whether rumors of a high-profile merger were true. The publicist, in no uncertain terms, denied the rumors, telling a lie that backfired just days later at a press conference heralding the merger between and Hearst. Furious, Ledbetter opened the questioning by asking the CEO about the wisdom of a publicity strategy founded on untruths. A more egregious example in Ledbetter's eyes - and one that shows how resilient a relationship can be - was when the Standard's agency undercut one of the magazine's own stories because it reflected poorly on another of its clients. The agency was removed from the account, but Ledbetter, who is now senior editor at Time Europe, says, "I wouldn't refuse a call from them if they were pitching me a story." As for the agency that covered up the merger, "I don't know that there's an easy way to repair a relationship with a PR person who lies," he says now, adding that the way not to do it is to phone and complain about his line of questioning - which the agency did. "A good start would have been to admit that to lie is unnecessary, and hugely unethical." Beyond the basic admittance of fault, there are a variety of techniques to further the rapprochement, depending on the situation. Rich Goldsmith learned this when, in 1999, he worked for a small Twin Cities agency that was excited to have landed a new hi-tech account. The excitement dimmed, however, once the pitching began and the agency learned that its client had managed to alienate 15 or so trade reporters. To get the client's message out, the agency had to repair relationships it hadn't even broken in the first place. After promising that this was a new day, Goldsmith says, the most effective technique was pitching good stories and giving the reporters the means to write them. This meant, on many occasions, making relevant engineers and other experts available. "We were bending over backward until we established the relationships," says Goldsmith, now an account executive at Weber Shandwick. "They're looking for someone to help them do their job. They're not going to hold a grudge forever." Time, ever the healer, can be a key element in the reconciliation process. Tempers cool, people forget, and priorities get rearranged so that grudges eventually take a backseat to the need for a good story. Much as he hates to admit this, Itzkoff, the Spin editor, does. He says he knows he'll need the PR person for future stories, but he doesn't want to run the risk of doing him favors by helping promote his clients with the wound still fresh. With apology and good story ideas already in hand, he says, "I'm not entirely sure what to do next. The best thing I can think to do is take a cooling-off period. "This will make me more cautious in the future." ----- Technique tips Do offer a succinct and sincere apology, without overdoing it Do offer a good story, additional background, or an exclusive Do avoid making the same mistake in the future Don't take it personally or get angry with the reporter Don't sweep the mistake under the rug and forget about it Don't avoid the reporter, as your paths will likely cross again

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