A bunch of things PR students always wanted to know but were afraid to ask

Thanks to the wonderful faculty environment we have here at UWO and the nice people I work with, I get a few benefits that some other places don’t. A lot of schools are so large or so “siloed” in their approaches to the various media disciplines that faculty and students don’t spend a lot of time together. Even more, once you choose your path as a student, you tend to end up in a silo or a bubble or whatever else you want to call it. In short, if you’re in PR, you spend all your time with PR students, PR faculty, PR textbooks and PR internships. If you’re in digital news, you are surrounded by news faculty, news students, news gigs and news texts. You never really get out of your zone or  your lane.

I’ve always submitted that this is problematic because you need to know how other people work and think and act in your field. I’ve done a ton of research on the issue of intergroup bias in this regard. (I’m not linking it here, but if NyQuil isn’t working for you, feel free to look for it on Academic Search Premier.) Even more, when people are people, it’s easier to understand and appreciate each other and be honest about stuff that can help them.

To help facilitate that idea, our PR guru Kristine Nicolini asked if I’d sit with her PR techniques class (a small group of about 20 student or so) and answer questions for them based on my experiences in news and working with PR folk. To help facilitate this, she had them write up a bunch of questions and then we kind of went from there. Below is a loose rehash of the items they asked, some things we discussed and a couple things they asked but we didn’t get to. It might not be everyone’s experience, but the answers reflected mine and I think it reveals greater truths as we get toward the end of the term:

“What’s your best advice for a PR professional when it’s the first time he/she reaches out to a specific journalist?”
“What makes for a strong first impression?”
“What’s your best advice for a PR professional who wants to create relationships with a journalist?”
“How do you go from just being the annoying PR professional to being an actual contact journalists will go to?”

I grouped these together (a few others were similar, so I avoided duplication) because they all hit on that same basic idea. In order to keep things simple, here are three bits of advice (and these swing both ways in the PR/News relationship):

  1. Get to know me before you need me. If the only time I ever hear from you is when you need something from me, you’re like that annoying friend on Facebook who tags me when their kid is selling Christmas wreaths or the “dude I knew sophomore year” who calls out of the blue to see if I can help him move into a new apartment this weekend. Building relationships takes time and it can’t just be a transaction-based arrangement. If you spend time getting to know me, my job, my needs and my publication, I will, in turn, get to know all those kinds of things about you.
  2. Bank capital and spend it when it matters: Every transaction you have with another human being leads to some level of benefit for one or both of you. It could be a small benefit or a large one, but it’s there. I like to think of this as “building capital” and it has its benefits. When you can help a reporter find a bit of information or provide a quote when you can, you build capital. It’s not like the person “owes you” favors, but when you are there for someone enough times, you feel like you’ll have a better shot of getting what you need when you need it. In other words, I helped you move 13 times over the past three years. Could you help me do X just this once?
  3. Know where the line is: I’ve been professional, decent, humane, friendly and so forth in many relationships with many PR professionals I’ve know. However, there is a line neither one of us can’t cross into “friendship” because that has huge risks. You can ask me for things that I can decline for any number of reasons: (“Hey I have this client who has a book about the benefits of eating yellow snow. You think  you could do a story on him?” “Uh… no. That’s gross.” “OK.”) However, you can’t ask me to break my own ethical code, violate the law or cover up something because “I thought we were friends.” If your boss’ kid gets a DUI and it’s newsworthy, it’s getting published. If your company’s new “Andy the Asbestos doll” is giving kids cancer, I’m not skipping that story. We both know there is a line and we both know how it works.
    I also have to know where that line is. When I know a PR person well enough, I know what’s off limits (it varies) and I also know if the line is a hard line or a flexible line. We agree on the parameters of our relationship and we stick to it.


“Why can’t I get stuff published when I send it to journalists?”

“What makes you want to write about something?”
“If something comes from a PR person, do you automatically think of it as bad?”

This was a collection of thoughts students had during a part of the chat where they clearly were frustrated. The idea is: “I put all this time and energy into this news release or event or whatever and ‘you guys’ just ignore it or crap all over it. What gives?” Two simple answers both focus on the same basic idea:

  1. I don’t care about you (and neither should you): The main point I make in both books is that audience-centricity is crucial to everything we do in the media. If you’re doing a whole campaign on snowblower safety in June, who the hell is going to care about that in my audience? If I run a magazine on duck hunting and you are pitching me ideas on how to hunt for elk, why would I want to run that? The biggest issue all media writers have is that we get attached to our topics. We feel that it matters to us and therefore it should matter to everyone else. It doesn’t. Focus on the benefits your thing has to the audience I serve as a journalist and we’re probably going to be on the same page.
  2. Do we actually need each other? Not every PR person needs every journalist. If I’m covering crime in Springfield, Missouri, I probably want to get to know the public information officer at the Springfield Police Department very well. I need that guy or gal to do my job in a lot of cases. Do I need to know the head of the local FFA out there? Probably not. Flip that around: Does that FFA head need me? Nope. Does the PIO need me? Maybe, depending on the attitude the police have regarding the local press.
    The goal is to figure out how a relationship between you as a PR person and me as a reporter is mutually beneficial. Why do I want to get to know you as a journalist or why do I want to get to know you as a PR practitioner? What value does each of us possess in that relationship that helps us do our jobs better? How does it help us serve our audiences? Answer that question and you’ll get a lot more out of the whole situation.

Random questions with quick answers that really didn’t fit into any particular area of anything.

“What’s your advice for working with difficult journalists?”
Find out why I’m being a jerk, figure out if it’s something you can/would care to fix and act accordingly. Also, figure out if I’m worth the time and effort. As mom always told me after I got dumped throughout high school, “There are a lot of other fish in the sea… you can do so much better.”

What’s the hardest part about being a journalist?
Mental scars, situational regrets and dead kids. I can remember the name, age and cause of death of every kid (17 and under) I ever wrote about and that goes back more than 20 years.

“What’s the worst thing a PR person can do (to a journalist)?”
Lie to me. If you lie to me, I’ll probably figure it out and then I’m going to be really peeved and I’ll make it my personal mission to make sure you regret it.

“What was the most interesting way a (PR/Marketing etc.) professional reached out to you?”
Someone sent the newsroom a giant box (and I mean like the size of a printer-paper box)  of condoms as part of a press kit promoting safer sex awareness. Also, some music label used to send us CDs in miniature “body bags.” I think it was supposed to make them look “bad ass.” I think our features editor used them to carry his lunch around. If you have a question you’d like to see answered, ask it here and I’ll do my best to answer it.

Got a question? Hit me up here and I’ll give it a go.

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