Attention publicists — your interests and my interests do not perfectly align. And that’s a good thing.
The best check on public relations and the media is the inherent conflict that exists between us. It’s a publicist’s job to secure positive press for their clients, and it’s the media’s job to tell stories in a credible, entertaining voice. That conflict prevents me from bashing your client (because I know you’ll call and scream at me and my boss) and it prevents you from pushing non-truths and spun-up misrepresentations on the public at large.
It’s a beautiful system of checks and balances — the minute we in the media start schilling for someone else’s interest, we lose our credibility. Many publicists understand that and will work within the established boundaries that have existed between the two sides for decades. But there’s also a growing segment of the PR world that doesn’t respect the established rules. Through sheer will, tenacity or brute force, they are determined to impose their demands on journalists and try and control the way we write our stories.
Look — we’re not going to break protocol or risk our credibility because some publicist is dangling something shiny in front of us. If you want to work with us, that’s great — we’re friendly, fun and have a unique voice that resonates within live music. Just know there are certain boundaries we put in place that protects both you and me (but mostly me). Below are five no-nos when it comes to working with the press.
Asking for the questions in advance
This is the least egregious thing I get asked by publicists and I understand that many are inquiring because their clients are requesting to be briefed. That’s fine. I want my sources to be prepared to talk to me and in most cases, I will oblige and offer up a few broad questions in advance.
I run into problems when I’m conducting the interview and I ask a question that’s not on the list and the publicist scolds me for going off the script. Here’s the thing — I reserve the right to ask whatever I want for the interview. It’s important to let the conversation go where it goes. I’m OK with establishing boundaries and even agreeing that a topic or two is off limits (but don’t push), but I need to be able to do my job and ask questions that are interesting to readers. It’s not about me trying to play “gotcha” with someone. It’s about having a genuine conversation and finding the truth.
Bottom line: I can share a basic outline and the gist of the article with publicists, but I retain the right to let a conversation follow a natural course and ask anything I think will help improve the story or satiate my curiosity.
Asking to read the story before it publishes
This one comes up a lot and as a basic journalistic rule, I’m not allowed to let the source of a story read an article before it comes out. This a hard and fast rule for many media outlets — they don’t want a source trying to change the story before it runs, or be accused of favoritism.
There is, however, a case to be made for accuracy — in this non-fact-checking, turn-it-around as fast as possible era, some times the best way to make sure the details are right are to discuss the final draft directly with the source. That can be helpful, but doesn’t really catch all the mistakes. Even for the sake of accuracy, it’s still against the rules at most news organizations to allow publicist or sources to read an entire story in advance, and in many cases it would be a fireable offense. That alone gives many reporters cover to simply say no when the request is made. If a publicist thought there was going to be a problem, they should have prepped their client in advance or not agreed to the interview.
Bottom line: This is one of the oldest no nos in the book, engrained in our head in journalism school. Not only is it a potentially fireable offense, but it’s obnoxious.
Trying to control the timing of the story
I hate this request more than people asking to read an article in advance. Not a week goes by that a publicist pitches me on a story and then tries to lock me in on timing, dictating to me the time and date of publication.
When I can, I will gladly work to accommodate someone’s schedule, especially if it’s a big scoop and it’s going to hit big. I definitely want to be involved in breaking those stories. But more and more, I get pitched on an “embargoed story” with very little turnaround time and a request for 5 a.m. EST publication.
No. I’m not ceding our editorial schedule to you. Editors and reporters decide which stories will run at what times based on news cycle and priority. If there’s a bigger breaking news story, your embargoed press release is just going to have to wait.
Bottom line: I will try to accommodate scheduling requests, but there are no guarantees on timing.
Demanding approvals of quotes or trying to make side deals
Many publicists prepare for interviews as if they are bilateral talks between warring nations. They reach out and try to establish ground rules, spell out topics that can and cannot be addressed and then try and set up post editing approvals on quotes, photos and layout.
Here’s what you need to know — your negotiating leverage is based on how bad either of us want the story. If you are pitching and pushing for a piece on your client, then you have very little leverage and I will probably ignore any and all of your requests for ground rules and proceed forward as appropriate.
If, on the other hand, I am the one requesting the interview, then yes, I will have to cede some of my editorial independence to you to get the story written. Just please don’t mistake that for an invitation to bend editorial rules and ask for things that are clear violations of company policy, like approvals on quotes or veto power. You’re not God.
Bottom line: Even if we beg and plead to get the story, there are some red lines that just can’t be crossed.
Asking to change the story after it runs
I miss the good ol’ days of print. Once ink hit paper, the story was immortalized in history.
It’s not the same with the Internet. If something is screwed up, then typically editors quietly change it and never run a correction. It’s not necessarily the best way to approach a story, but it’s the way of the world in this nonstop, get-it-online-as-fast-as-possible environment.
I will fix a story after the fact if there is a problem. Whether it’s a misspelling, a typo or a factual mistake, I will go in after a story has published and try to correct the record. Many publicists take this as an invitation to request wholesale changes to an article or delete passages and quotes they don’t like. Sorry folks, but I am most likely not going to grant this request. When we start revising stories after they run because someone doesn’t like something, we destroy the little power we have left in life to make things authentic and truthful. If you want to control the way sources are quoted, put it in writing or make sure they say it correctly the first time.
Bottom Line: Once the story runs, unless there is a factual error made by the writer, I’m not going to change the story.
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