Cats and dogs? Can PR pros and journalists be friends?

My pretty kitty UniI began my college career as a broadcast journalism major. For some reason, my parents (bless them) thought I was going to be the next Katie Couric . . .

I digress. I had a hardcore journalism professor my sophomore year whom I respect like you wouldn’t believe. She discussed her days as a TV reporter often, and mentioned how many journalists only ever hang out with other journalists. Her reasoning was namely about journalistic integrity (never being swayed by lobbyists, PR people, third parties/sharing stories) and I will stop there so as not to put incorrect words in her mouth. It’s been a while since I was in that class.

Fast-forward a few years – I met an editorial assistant at a Connecticut newspaper. We’ll call him Sam. Sam is super. Sam is nice, Sam is responsive, Sam is thoughtful, Sam does great work at his job . . . my colleagues and I love Sam. Sam and I established a business relationship when I began pitching him a client of mine. Over the next few weeks, I pitched a few more clients and eventually invited him to a large business tradeshow my firm does the publicity for. Sam came to the event, we met, and he was even friendlier in real life than on our e-mail correspondence.

Long story short, I consistently invite Sam to events we do the PR for (along with other journalists; I’m not playing favorites). I’ve even invited him out to a local (purely social) tweetup (this officially establishing a friend aspect to our relationship). All the while, Sam and I maintain a very professional and respectful relationship. I would consider him a journalist before I would consider him a friend because we met on a professional level.

Here are some of my pros and cons to having a friendship between a journo and a PR pro:

Pro

  • The journalist can speak to you as a friend, giving you honest and constructive feedback on your work ultimately (hopefully) helping you improve your PR skills.
  • Why do we have to dictate who we can and cannot be friends with? ( . . . ok, that’s kind of a weak “pro.”)

Con

  • If a PR pro ever abuses the relationship with the journo there are obvious penalties on both sides (and visa versa). You should never abuse any friend regardless of what profession you both are in.
  • Like any business relationship, getting too personal can make this blissful pairing go bad real quick! Were anyone to be angered, disrespected, snubbed in this relationship, a bridge would be burned, likely to go unrepaired potentially making an even deeper impact in other arenas as well.

My question for those PR pros and journalists out there is, how do you feel about the two professions crossing . . . becoming (gasp!) friends? Are you a PR pro who is friends with a journo or visa versa? Does it work? Do you “swear off” the “other team” as potential friends? Can’t we all just get along? Ok . . . let that last question lie.

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  • laurenfernandez

    I have many journalists that I would consider acquaintances – a friendship on a professional level. Ethics can play a part in this as well – You have to build a working relationship with journalists, especially those that you pitch often – but what if you give a scoop to your “friend?” Could you be accused of being unethical and not looking for the best source?

  • http://lynettecornell.com/ Lynette Cornell

    As a journalist, I am strongly turned off by pr folks who act like my friend the minute we meet, who instantly act as though they're my pal. I'm all for positive relationships, but when favors start being exchanged, I find that problematic. I will choose my interview subjects based upon their appropriateness for the piece, not because I'm friends with their pr reps. And I know that someone will inevitably say, “But friendship doesn't necessarily mean you'll play favorites.” And that is incorrect. Maybe other journalists are better at staying unswayed, but I know how my psychology works. It's natural to feel more inclined to write about someone whose pr person has invited me to special events or a social tweetup than the guy whose pr person I only know in a professional sense. Something goes off the in the human brain when a friendship bond is formed that creates a subconscious bias.

    Also, do pr people really refer to journalists as “journos”?

  • http://alexaizenberg.wordpress.com/ Alex Aizenberg

    Sounds like I should hang out with Sam too! On a serious note though, i think both sides can and do coexist within the broader media industry we're all a part of. As long as it's reciprocated and underlined with great work, that's as you say has to be the starting point anyway.

    I don't believe PR folks are the ones to ever 'swear off' the other side, at least not to the extent that journos do to us… and that's understandable, i guess… to some extent it's true that we need them, and they don't really need us, but realistically (and if we do our job right) we are helping them do their job faster, easier and better even.

    I have only few journos whom i can call friends, but those relationships are invaluable to me… be it because of their willingness to be a sounding board, or an internal advocates for my 'services'… I try not to exclude any media from my family of contacts, but i tend to think that my trials and tribulations throughout my PR tenure has inevitably disenfranchised a few journos from reciprocating, and in turn i try not to add fuel to the fire (anymore that is) and reengage them with my clients. That's just respecting their space really, and could help mend fences in the future.

    Either way, all it takes is access and continued devotion to the relationship… as a married man, i can tell you that at times married life and journo relationships are very much alike, in this sense at least.

    Great post as always Kate.

  • http://twitter.com/tjdietderich TJ Dietderich

    Because I came from a writing background, it happens that a lot of my friends and old classmates are now writers at different media outlets. That's different than your case, where you met in a professional setting. There was an awkward moment, though, when my friends and I exclaimed, “You got the writing job? That's awesome, I got the PR job!” And then we realized . . . everything had changed! *dramatic music swells*

    Hahaha, I'm just kidding, nothing really changed. When I have a client that's a fit for their beat, I say to them, “Hey, I know we're friends and if you don't want to be pitched by me, just let me know. But I have this book I think you'd dig.” Without fail, my friends prove to be consummate professionals. They don't give me preferential treatment, but they don't turn me down like a bedspread just because we have a friendly relationship.

  • http://twitter.com/KOttavio Kate Ottavio

    Good point, Lauren! I think in the situation where you get preference from a journalist because you are friends, you need to have already backed-up your professionalism/have a solid reputation for ethical conduct…have and continue to provide good and reputable sources, treat journalists fairly (never picking a favorite). It can get tangled, I'm sure.

    Thank you!!

  • http://twitter.com/KOttavio Kate Ottavio

    Thank you very much for your comment Lynette. I'm happy to receive feedback on this post from a journalist. I see exactly where you are coming from with the psychology of friend vs. professional relationship. Nothing is more important to me than maintaining ethical conduct in PR which is why I never pitch Sam something that isn't a fit for him. I also agree with you re: disliking when someone acts like your buddy immediately. I dislike that with people in general. It comes off so skeezy.

    Thank you again for your comment!

  • http://twitter.com/PRCog PRCog

    I'll address the last bit — I do, more as an abbreviation than a dig. I fall back on 'hack' when trying to be negative.

    Then again I'm also happy to refer to myself and brethren as flacks so I may not be the best litmus test.

  • http://twitter.com/kescovedo Kristen Escovedo

    Interesting topic and good feedback. I'm with Lauren and I tend have several journalists who I would call “friends” but they are more of work friends. We don't hang out on Friday nights – but then again, if I saw them on Friday night, there wouldn't be anything stopping me from having a drink with them (which has happened). That being said, I think there are circumstances where it can work. I have PR friends that are married to journalists (one even managed to make it work with a columnist who worked in her field).

    In these cases, I think it's like making any good relationship work; you have to lay down the ground rules before conflict arises. If you wait until you have a “can't miss pitch” that you casually give your friend during a baby shower, you may be seen as abusing your relationship (and rightfully so).

  • http://twitter.com/KOttavio Kate Ottavio

    *dramatic music swells*

    turn me down like a bedspread

    Haha, I love it TJ! Can I trade spots with Stina at the office for a week please?

    I remember when I first started pitching a guy I went to QU with and actually used to write the news show with as well. I was super awkward at first I think. Along the lines of “Seriously, if you don't want me pitching you or I ever cross the line/don't reciprocate on my end, please, please let me know.” He was so cool about it and told me I was sending the right stuff. If there's something he can't or doesn't want to cover, he politely declines, we move along and I pitch him again when the time and topic is right.

    Thanks Teej!

  • celiasuehecht

    good points, all…

    well, since I m both a journalist and PR pro… I try to get along with myself, some days it works, other days, not so good… :-)

    but speaking of this topic, do you know about Peter Shankman and HARO? He has done a lot to put journos and PR people together, and his over 100,000 list gets along, and if the PR people don't follow the rules, they get kicked out of the club… plus he's funny… which always helps, no matter what…

    cheers !

  • celiasuehecht

    good points, all…

    well, since I m both a journalist and PR pro… I try to get along with myself, some days it works, other days, not so good… :-)

    but speaking of this topic, do you know about Peter Shankman and HARO? He has done a lot to put journos and PR people together, and his over 100,000 list gets along, and if the PR people don't follow the rules, they get kicked out of the club… plus he's funny… which always helps, no matter what…

    cheers !

  • http://prbreakfastclub.com/2009/10/16/can-publicists-be-friends/ Can Publicists Be Friends? :PRBreakfastClub

    [...] a recent post, fellow PRBC-er Kate, posed the question: “Can publicists and journalists be friends?” It is an interesting issue [...]