What a journalist won’t tell you about your PR company

Member exclusive by Terena Bell

Most companies hire public relations firms because they want more press. But the tricks some agencies use in an effort to win you coverage often backfire. As a reporter, I see the same mistakes every day. Not only do these blunders ensure your story won’t get covered, but sometimes they can result in your company being blacklisted—or worse, a negative piece.

Here are five ways your flack might actually just be making reporters angry:

  1.  They offer us free stuff. Lots and lots of free stuff. Sometimes this makes sense: If we’re writing a product review, then we need to use the product, right? But if we’re reporting on artificial intelligence or cybersecurity, a free Miami vacation does not. Normally, these offers come with an invite to your user conference, suggesting that if our editor won’t finance the trip, you will. But no credible journalist accepts bribes. Per the Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) Code of Ethics, “Journalists should [r]efuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment…that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.” What defines damaging varies by publication: New York Times says no to any gifts worth more than around $25. For those who follow the American Society of Business Publication Editors’ ethics guide, conference freebies are allowed only when every attendee gets them. So think free exhibitor ink pen, not luxury trip to Vegas.
  2. They ask us to write fake news. It should be pretty obvious that asking a reporter to write something you both know isn’t true is a no-no. But it happens. Take attribution, for example—the “CEO Betty Smith says” portion of any news article. If I report that Betty Smith said something, she better have said it. Yet once a month or so, a PR rep will give me a quote, then—without connecting me to Betty for verification—say, “Attribute this to Betty.” For the most part, when we explain “PR rep John says that Betty says” doesn’t hold up to fact-check, they loop in Betty. Every now and then, though, some jerk refuses: It’s his job to guard Betty’s time or, worse, he claims other reporters do it. But when a PR rep denies a fact check for something that inherently simple, it can make a reporter suspicious: Did Betty even say this at all? And if they’re asking us to lie about Betty, is this other information about the company true? So we may start digging, and that’s how a fairly innocuous business profile becomes investigative.
  3. They act like there’s something to hide. PR and journalism have two different goals: A PR rep’s goal is to make you look good and a journalist’s goal is to tell the truth. When the company is doing something good, those goals align. But does your PR firm know this? Recently, for example, I set up an interview with an insurance company about an HR project they’d announced at a conference. Then, less than 24 hours before the call, the company’s flack cancelled because I refused to write about his suggested story, predictive modeling, instead. Maybe the PR rep’s client was begging him to push AI? But it’s my job to sniff out the facts, so I pushed even harder to find the real reason they didn’t want to talk HR. Reporters only want to share the truth, so if your truth is good, stop acting like there’s something to hide.
  4. They try to control everything. Some PR reps try to control stories by demanding a full list of interview questions in advance. As David Cruz with the New York Press Club says, “Giving PR reps a sense of what we want to focus on is fine,” but giving them sign-off on questions is unethical. So is a PR rep asking to approve stories before they run. Imagine if our elected leaders got to approve every question reporters asked or every article we wrote.
  5. They request corrections when nothing’s wrong. To a journalist, nothing is more important than the truth. That’s why we want to know if there’s an error in our reporting. But if your rep sends an email with the subject line “CORRECTION NEEDED,” there better be an actual mistake. Because far too often, there’s not. Instead, the PR rep has made a mistake on his end and doesn’t have all the facts—he’s asking for a correction to something that is actually correct. Or maybe he asks to remove sentences the company simply doesn’t like. But the news is not company ad copy. That’s not how it works.

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