PR's 'Dark Side' not always a myth

Monday, October 22, 2012
My friend and former WXRT News colleague Michelle Damico has posted an eloquent essay debunking the stereotype that holds journalists who transition to public relations have joined "the Dark Side."

I may years ago have bought into that cliche. But as time's passed, I've come to recognize that an insightful, responsive and forthright PR person -- like Michelle -- can be among a reporter's greatest resources.

Here are just a few recent stories for which PR people helped connect me with experts:

What puts "The Force" on the side of good PR people? Following rules like these can help:

1. Be honest with reporters. If you can't say or do something, explain why.
2. Know your reporters. Don't pitch a story unless you have reason to believe that story genuinely falls within that reporter's wheelhouse.
3. Once you set the story in motion -- once you make the connection between reporter and newsmaker -- stay out of the process, unless the reporter seeks more help.

This last point brings to mind someone I'll refer to as "The PR Person from Hell" (henceforth, PRPFH). I'll do my best to protect the identities of all concerned:

A nonprofit corporation that had entered a promotional partnership with my employer was holding a public event I thought could make a compelling story: Lots of sensory detail, dedicated workers, a clear public need. I set out to do a first-person account of what it was like to help.

At the end of my volunteer role, I sat with other volunteers. With permission from PRPFH, I interviewed them about their experience. Their reaction was largely positive, although one had some questions about protocol she considered unfair.

That angle didn't interest me; my priority was telling the "you are here" story, to give people an idea of what it was like to help, and to encourage more to do so.

But PRPFH became agitated and implored me not to use that angle. I said I didn't consider it an important part of the story, but I'd let her know if I decided to pursue it. I returned to the newsroom to work on another story.

Soon after I sat down, a member of the sales staff approached me, agitated, telling me PRPFH had called to warn that if the controversial quote from a volunteer aired, the organization would cancel all pending ads. The sales person begged me not to cover that angle. I said I'd discuss it with the editorial team and returned to work on more pressing stories.

But within minutes, my supervisor -- who'd then also been contacted by the sales person -- asked to talk about the story. We did.

I explained that I hadn't intended to deal with the controversial part of the story at all until PRPFH made a big deal out of it, which had made me reconsider my inclination not to address the issue.

We reached a compromise: We scrapped the positive story I was going to do, and we agreed to report the controversial story after the promotion had expired.

I left the employer before that happened. But here's the moral for PRPFH:

By meddling in a story you helped set in motion -- and, more egregiously, by doing so through the sales staff -- you killed what was to have been a feature that would have been complimentary to your client organization.

And you made it onto my short list of people who keep PR's "Dark Side" rep alive.
Share your comments on this issue below or on Michelle Damico's blog.
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Kevin Lampe said...

Very true,PRPFH make it tough for all.

Michael Shmarak said...

Great post, Michelle. In a bit of a related story, I got a call from a reporter at a Chicago publication to be remain anonymous wondering if I could offer the reporter some guidance on how to handle PR people who don't do their homework. My response/advice to the reporter:

1. Tell the PR person that your time is valuable.
2. Tell said PR person that your client’s time is even more valuable, given that the agency is being paid a fee that (undoubtedly) is part of that person’s salary.
3. Last, ask this question: “Don’t you think that your salary is worth doing the extra research that it takes to know that I cover nothing of the sort that your pitch asks about?”

Sounds like PRPFH found a new job bugging my friends.

Michelle Damico said...

Hi Michael, thanks for commenting on this post. Charlie may want to weigh in on this, but I'd be more direct. The reporter has every right to say "Hey, why not do your homework, especially since Google makes it so easy for you to research what I write about. Don't call me with topics I don't cover. You're taking up my valuable time, and you're wasting your client's money."

That kind of verbal jolt is the best lesson any rookie PR person needs to become better at serving the media. Thanks again for your comment, Michael.

Charlie Meyerson said...

I'm fine with that, Michelle!

Starr McCaffery said...

Michelle I wish there was a "like" button for this. Great post Charlie and thanks for sharing Michelle.

Marj Halperin said...

Great, Charlie! Love how you and Michelle come from different directions and meet in the middle. Good PR is good for the reporter AND the client, as you both so nicely illustrated.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.

Dave Jaffe said...

Charlie, what useful advice you and my old friend Michelle offer.
I’ve worked both sides of the street – as a TV news assignment editor in
Chicago for a hundred years, then as a communications director at a large
association for nearly as long– and find your insights dead on and a benefit to
journalists, PR professionals and, eventually, the audiences that both are
trying to reach. Thanks!