From Mail to Maker’s Mark: A Scale for Assessing Flack-Reporter Relationships

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The Coffee-Serving Security Guard © by Qole Pejorian

Every PR pro has been in the scenario: the team is gathered in a conference room. The topic of media comes up, and various names are bandied about. Then the boss growls, “who has a relationship with that reporter?” The implication is clear: in a business of connections, the person doing the pitching should have some sort of tie to the writer/editor/blogger in question.

Invariably, someone pipes up, claiming they have a relationship with the reporter in question. But the word “relationship” is fuzzy, and it’s only getting fuzzier in a world of social media. Sure, Joe Reporter from the Daily Bugle follows me on Twitter. Or maybe he accepted my LinkedIn request, 7 years ago. Or he gave me a terse “no thanks” over email once. Does that constitute a “relationship”? We need to be more precise.

So I’ve developed a six-level scale to measure the hardiness of a flack-reporter relationship. Each level is inclusive of the one above it; it’s a rare journalist that will answer a phone call but ignore an email:

  • The Email Relationship: You can feel certain that your emails get read, and — sometimes — even warrant a response from the reporter.
  • The “Social” Relationship: Some sort of connection exists on some sort of social platform.
  • The Phone Relationship: Your calls don’t get screened, or, when you leave a message, it gets returned.
  • The Coffee Relationship: You’ve had a meaningful real-world interaction. Maybe coffee or a quick lunch. The reporter can reliably match your name with your face.
  • The Beer Relationship: You’ve spent time together quasi-socially, outside of business hours and discussed something other than business.
  • The Bourbon Relationship: You’ve both gone beyond the “quick beer” and invested in time together that could lead to a loose tongue, regret-it-later-carousing, a pounding headache or some combination of the above.

(This isn’t absolute. Some reporters just love a good whiskey and will endure even an irritating flack if it means sipping a well-made old fashioned at an industry conference.)

The goal of media relations experts is to climb the relationship ladder. It takes very little investment to get to “Email Relationship.” But taking a reporter out to coffee requires some time, effort and planning. Reporters recognize and appreciate that. As for reaching the “Bourbon Relationship,” that goes beyond just time and involves a little bit more trust (on everyone’s part).

So the next time a boss or a client asks about whether a relationship exists, it shouldn’t be enough to just answer “yes” or “no.” The goal of the real pro is to be able to say, “Yup: I know Joe Reporter … and he takes his Knob Creek neat.”

Brian Reid has nearly two decades of experience as a modern storyteller. He a director at W2O Group, where he specializes in media relations and strategy. His past lives have included positions as a Bloomberg reporter, a Washington Post blogger, an NIH writer and a freelance journalist.

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