How to Become a Reporter’s Best Friend

A few weeks ago, I was pulling into my driveway, after a long week of work, when I received a phone call from a reporter I work with wanting a quote for a story. I spent the next two hours calling and e-mailing clients trying to gather a comment. I never did get a comment, but the reporter did express gratitude for the effort.

This little exercise reminds me of why some PR practioners maintain good relations with the media, and others don’t. Here are some points to remember for young PR executives.

  • Go above and beyond the call of duty. If a reporter calls you at 5 p.m. on a Friday, don’t hang up or blow him off. Do all you can to help him finish his story and get him sources. He will remember it in the future.
  • Don’t send them crap. An old boss of mine said the reason why our agency was successful in getting story placements was that we distributed well-written press releases. The press releases were often written like news stories and could be copied and pasted into a paper.  Not exactly great journalism, but in these days of thinning news rooms, reporters and editors love a press release that doesn’t need much work.
  • Understand the reporter’s beat. It helps if you learn about what subjects a reporter covers. If a reporter writes about politics and you keep sending him technology stories, you will soon find yourself in his dog house. Do some research and read about what kind of stories the reporter is covering. It will pay off in the long run.
  • Do some real networking. Ask the reporter to lunch or out to drinks, if he can do this, (this is prohibited by some papers); and spend some time talking about the industry and what is going on in his life. Don’t pitch any stories. Just spend some time getting to know the reporter and try to develop an actual relationship. They will end up liking you more than the PR rep who only calls when they want favorable coverage.
  • Broaden your scope. Send them story ideas that are not related to your clients. If they are looking for contacts, don’t always pitch your sources. This makes you a true media source and not just a conduit for your clients.

Old-time PR practioners may have already used many of these tactics, but these are useful tips for beginners. Use some of these tips, and you will soon end up a reporter’s best friend, and not the flack whose press releases go straight to the junk mail folder.

Manny Otiko, vice president of social and new media at Desmond & Louis, has worked in the public relations and journalism field for about 15 years as a journalist and a media relations specialist. His experience includes stints as a reporter at a daily newspaper, serving as a media relations specialist for a state agency and working for Southern California public relations agencies, Dameron Communications, Tobin and Associates and WunderMarx PR.

Manny has worked with clients in the public affairs, technology, education and economic development fields. He has secured coverage in publications such as The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, and Men’s Health.

Manny has been published in The Riverside Press Enterprise, The LA Sentinel, The LA Wave, The Washington Afro-Am, IE Weekly and Our Weekly. He is an active member of the Orange County chapter of PRSA, the National Association of Black Journalists and the Black Journalists’ Association of Southern California.

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  • This should be a print-and-save piece for every PR practitioner who deals with the media. I can attest, from 24 years in journalism, that the percentage of PR “pros” who follow these guidelines is in the single digits. As to the second point: Stop writing news releases the way someone taught you to write them, and start using common sense. Write a real lede, not something stuffed with ticker symbols and passive-voice sentences. Don’t even bother including a quote if it isn’t conversational and authentic. And if your excuse is that your bosses or clients insist on such dreck, then you are failing at your top priority: providing informed and valuable counsel.

  • Excellent stuff. There is a huge opportunity here; so much media relations is now so bad that simply reaching out to a reporter to say “nice job” on a (non-client) story puts you in the top 99 percent of flacks they deal with. The default assumption when I was a journalist was that the PR folks weren’t actually paying attention. Proving otherwise is a great distinction.

    It’s worth noting that all of this applies to just about any PR relationship: online writers that may or may not consider themselves “reporters,” advocates, etc.

    • Gail Kent

      I see that you are a PR pro, Brian. I’m sorry to see that you are using the term “flack” in regards to your own profession. If you use that term, what is to prevent journalists from viewing us all in that derrogatory light? I hope you rethink that position as you grow in your own professionalism.

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  • Jim, the dilemma is always whether to write the press release the way the client wants or to write it the way the media wants. But the objective of a press release is to got exposure, so we need to write press releases for the media. 

  • The dilemma is always whether to write the press releases the way the client wants, or to write it for the media. But we must ask, who is going to be the end user of the press release? 

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  • Anonymous

    I think this is an extremely important area that some people forget about as PR practitioners. I am currently studying broadcast journalism and public relations. While some divide journalism and PR into two separate categories, I have learned they really go hand in hand. A lot of what I have heard from professors and even some journalists is that PR people are spin artists. They generally have negative feelings towards PR people. While this isn’t the case with all journalists, I think the reason it is for some is because some PR practitioners forget to take time to improve their relationships with media professionals. Very helpful post!

  • Great advice! Understanding how the newsroom is run or
    different policies a newspaper has to follow is something that is easily
    forgotten. No matter what industry you are in one of the main things to remember
    is it is not necessarily what you know, but whom you know that will help you
    get a good break. I love the advice about getting to know a reporter on a more
    personal basis. That is something I wouldn’t have thought of. Your last tip is
    my favorite. Being a “true media source” will let the reporter know you know what
    is important to readers and that you know how to do your job well.

  • Kristine Marie

    Wonderful story! I can’t help but make comparisons to the tips you offer here with tips on how PR practitioners should handle all their publics. Always do more than what you have promised. Make sure you understand your client’s behaviors and style. Never provide an end-product that would not make you proud. These are great tips of advice for daily practice in all PR practitioners’ lives!

  • Very useful information! I am still a student, but I know that these tips will be a great help to me in the future as that reporter. I am not a PR Major, but rather a Broadcasting Major who desires to be a reporter in the near future (My minor is in PR and Journalism). I think it is important to be both professional and relational, which is what I got the most from this post. Sometimes, I think we forget that we are dealing with people who can either help you or hurt you. It is important to stay on a reporters good side and they will return the favor when needed. People can tell when you are being genuine, which is what we need to be when given the opportunity to be relational with people (such as that lunch or drinks you mentioned). Get to know the person and they will want to get to know you. 

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  • Jphillip

    As a young public relations practitioner who is in an entry-level job
    this offers me great advice. It is important to be reminded that public
    relations is not a 9-5 job, and that you might have to work longer hours to get
    the media to cover a story. This feeds into the next topic: Don’t send them
    crap. There are times when I find myself looking forward to getting off the
    clock. This results in rushed, unthorough work that should have been doesn’t hit
    the key points it should. I also enjoyed the part about the importance of
    networking for work, but not talking about your personal work. I think there is
    a valuable lesson to be learned there.     

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  • Barbara Babcock

    Great info. I am also amazed when a reporter is ‘surprised’ when I call them back immediately – no matter what time of day or night. On my voicemail message it clearly states that ‘if you are with the press, send me a text message so I can get back to you right away.’  No matter what – when they call – they take precedence. And you – and your clients – will be rewarded for that.

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