How to be a PR

A previous editor once told me, as I handed in my resignation, “whatever you do, Blake, don’t go into PR.”

Wise words that I have carried with me to this day.

When I worked in Brussels, a good friend of mine was press office for an EU lobby group. Many of the issues that he was representing, he agreed with. But there came a day when an issue landed on his plate that he just couldn’t stomach. He fought hard to get rid of it. He didn’t actually resign, though he came close. I think, actually, because of his not-too-quiet protests, he even managed to soften the stance of the organisation he was representing.

But that is the life of the humble PR – your job is to present the organisation that pays your salary in the best possible light that you can, whatever your own personal views might be.

Unfortunately, whilst the aim of a PR is never in doubt, many of those that work in the field do not, unfortunately, do not know how to achieve this. I think it is probably no coincidence that the best press officers I have ever encountered worked as journalists beforehand.

Communicating on a daily basis with PRs that have only a shaky grasp of journalism is frustrating, to say the least. So, to try and make life in the future easier for all us journalists, I have compiled a short list of tips for how to be a successful PR.

1. Know your objective. Obviously, your loyalty is towards your organisation, and not some snotty-nosed journalist that believes he has a God-given right to be told everything.

2. But know also that it is the journalists that can help you achieve this aim.

3. Journalists do not want to speak to PR people. They want to speak to the people that matter. PR people are useful only for setting up interviews, superficial fact-checking and providing reports. Don’t let your arrogance stand in the way of a job. PRs do not matter to journalists as much as they think they do.

4. If a journalist wants to speak to a specific person in a company, try and do everything possible to facilitate this. Most journalists will really appreciate it, and do everything that they can to put a nice gloss on the company, simply because they are happy something will be arranged.

5. Be patient with journalists. We often work to tight deadlines, and it is not unknown for an editor to change requirements at the last minute. If we phone you up and want an interview by the end of tomorrow, don’t sneer and comment that this is rather short-notice. We know it’s short notice. Just politely say whether you think it will be possible or not, and if you think it could be, really try to make it happen. Again, we’ll really appreciate it!

6. Always keep journalists informed of what is going on. Journalists are not pyschics, but they do have deadlines and they need to fill their articles with a certain number of quotes. If one interview falls through, then we need to try and arrange something else as quick as we can.

7. Don’t promise something you can’t deliver. Be honest.

8. Know just what you can tell a journalist. Obviously, there are limits about what you can say, but dropping the occasional tidbit of information (which a red-blooded journalists is likely to find interesting and is something not already publicly known) can be beneficial to the company. It helps to build up a level of trust that the journalist will not want to abuse.

9. In a similar vein, know what the journalist needs. Quoting long excerpts from reports often does not sit well with editors. We need to find out exactly what is going on, which is why we might be inclined to ask seemingly daft questions.

10. Never sneer at a question. Most questions, even the dumbest ones, are usually asked for a reason. Unless the journalist is actually dumb. But don’t assume that he or she is.

11. Journalists work in a fiercely competitive environment. We need something new to tell our readers. Subscribers to some of the magazines that I work for pay hundreds of pounds for 12 issues; they do not want to pay all of this money for something that they could find out from the Financial Times for a fraction of this price. So, if you can tell us something in advance and we have the tenacity to ask for this, then do so.

12. Meet with journalists. Good journalism thrives on good relations. A journalist that wants to meet with you and enjoy a coffee is probably much more likely to be trusted than those that just put in a quick phone call from time to time.

13. Understand that journalists have only limited power. They usually have to tow the editorial line. So, if you’re thinking you can manipulate a journalist and massage his ego, then check first what the publication is likely to think about this. For example, when I wrote for The Economist, I could never have introduced anything that wasn’t in favour of Sudanese President Omar Bashir being convicted of war crimes.

14. “Head of investor relations” is just a fancy word for “press officer”. Most experienced journalists are wise to this, so expect to be treated in the same manner as a press officer if you bare this title.

Any other points I’ve missed?

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