PR pros should build rapport with journalists, not label them

When The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald revealed the US government's broad domestic surveillance programs last month, he reignited a great debate - and I don't mean on the limits of executive power or the legitimacy of the National Security Agency's intelligence gathering.

When The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald revealed the US government's broad domestic surveillance programs last month, he reignited a great debate – and I don't mean on the limits of executive power or the legitimacy of the National Security Agency's (NSA) intelligence gathering.

Greenwald's scoops, fueled by information from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, set off another round of arguments about one of the most overwrought topics in the media world: Who is, and isn't, a journalist? PR pros shouldn't lose sleep over this. What they should worry about is who does and who doesn't have the scoop.

It's no secret many PR agencies have evolved in the past half decade from media relations shops where staffers spent the lion's share of their days pitching reporters. They're now covering the gamut from social media to  digital, and many agencies are producing quite a bit of content themselves for clients. Not to mention the fact that they've expanded contact lists far beyond journalists to various types of influencers, from parenting bloggers to celebrities.

The media world has changed quite a bit as well, especially since the recession of 2008-2009 and the resulting slower-than-hoped-for recovery have trimmed staffs and forced employees to learn new, mostly digital, skills. Today's media is producing a more diverse range of content than ever. So the “Are bloggers or activists journalists?” question is a false one.

Good PR pros realize the differences in types of media outlets. The Wall Street Journal and New York Post are owned by the same company, but there's no mistaking the content of one for the other in terms of style and tone. Crusading or activist reporting – call it journalism or not – is clearly not a new trend.

In response, PR pros and journalists need to pick up the phone more often. Many agency executives will say that junior-level teams handling media outreach no longer pitch many stories over the phone because it's faster to do so via email. This is a problem on the press' side of the fence, as well. It might be quicker for a reporter to email a source, but their copy will suffer as a result and won't have the interesting details that come up in an actual conversation.

The PR industry shouldn't worry too much about labeling writers in one category or another. It should focus on building relationships with them, getting back to the point when they knew their coverage areas, writing styles, and, yes, even their political leanings.

Frank Washkuch is the news editor of PRWeek. He can be contacted at frank.washkuch@prweek.com.

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