My Absolutely Fabulous guide to getting the best out of PR people

Just over two years ago, we all worked together in the newspaper industry.

Now, none of our fourstrong gang who will be meeting for a regular meal and catch-up next month is employed by the regional media.

I’m the odd one out in that I’m not involved in either media relations or the creation of online marketing content.

When I did some incredibly useful crowdsourcing for this blog, I counted no fewer than 25 of my Facebook friends who had made the transition from journalism to PR since I’d first known them.

There are now said to be nearly 20,000 more people in the PR industry than there are working journalists – a situation that worries my fellow journalism lecturer, Guardian columnist Roy Greenslade.

Since Leveson and various other watershed moments, it has been harder than ever for reporters to talk directly to police officers, council officials, business managers – and even politicians.

So you can look on this supposedly growing army of spin doctors as everything from a threat to democracy to a necessary evil to an opportunity.

So, I asked my friends in PR – in-house and agency: How can journalists get the best out of you?

Before launching into those tips, here’s the reason I used the word supposedly just a few moments ago.

This was one of the quotes I got from a former colleague: “We’re quite aware today’s newsrooms afford little time and have limited resources. Join the club! In most cases in-house PRs are a one-man band working across a massive range of projects and topics. We share your frustrations, probably more than you realise!”

So, there you go. We’re all in it together.

Here’s the best advice that my PR pals can provide:

  • Get your queries in as early as you can. Be clear and precise, and give a reasonable deadline. Provide as much information as possible. Remember the PR person may struggle to get hold of the right contact, particularly in sectors such as the police.
  • Don’t always rely on emails: “It can take more time than email, but a phone call and politely inquiring nature makes me more inclined to seek out that extra something.”
  • Remember the person on the other end of your email or call doesn’t work for you – even if they’re employed by the public sector and you’re a taxpayer: “The PR person is not employed to serve you/the media; he or she is employed to serve the organisation they represent.”
  • Check facts, and make sure you’ve got the right end of the stick: “Press offices which routinely handle complex matters, such as mine, have no problem with taking the time to ensure a reporter properly understands either the subject or the response. We know reporters have to be jacks and masters of all trades and subjects, from finance to human nature, from science to high art.”   And: “Most PRs are keen to take the time to explain the background and help you understand what’s going on behind the scenes. It’s worth it, you’ll be more informed and your article a whole lot more accurate and informative.”
  • Answer email queries, and give feedback if a well-pitched story isn’t going to work. And tell PR folk if that story that was life-or-death a few hours ago has now been spiked.
  • Don’t patronise – or try to kid a kidder. Most PR people have been journalists in another life, doing what you’re now trying to do.
  • Play the long game: “Be patient – if you push for a quick story to fill a gap on a slow day when the PR’s asked you to hold off for something better soon, don’t expect to be given the exclusive the next week.” And: “Bide your time. The best stories are often years in the making.”

The most important set of advice – by a country mile, and in line with all the best journalistic contact-making – is to build relationships.

“Invest time to get out from behind your desk to meet PR people. Probe them about all their clients, not just the ones they want to pitch to you, often you will find an angle and nugget between you when you least expect it.”

And be polite. Both of these quotes come from the public sector PR world:

  • “In terms of getting the best out of me – or making me go the extra mile for you – my one tip would be politeness. If you’re rude, condescending or obstructive in handing over information then my back is up straightaway and I’m less likely to hurry.”
  • “Don’t waste time being bullish. There’s a difference between holding people to account and demanding answers because of who you are. It’s worth remembering you’re trying to extract information and it’s likely you’ll have more luck with a polite inquiring manner than a head-down plough-on manner.”

Trust is key, as it is with all the best journalistic relationships.

“Above all build trust – trust allows us to talk more openly, it builds loyalty, it establishes a partnership through which we both get what we want or need for our respective audiences.”

As one of my closest ex-colleagues said, like Joni Mitchell, most PR folk have looked at life from both sides.

Another added: “As a “poacher turned gamekeeper,” journos and PRs work best when they touch base with each other frequently, and form strong relationships.”

These are, after all, people who might just be able to get you out of trouble when the content cupboard is looking bare.

“Don’t take the attitude that the PR person is a nuisance who is trying to peddle a non-story. If you spend time getting to know your PR contacts, you’ll realise which ones have the genuine news stories, which ones can get you a quote for a story quickly, and which ones are the best contacts.”

And there’s the thing. I’ve called them PR people because – believe it or not – they really are people, with full lives. They have clients, children, parents, groups, friends – and most still have a slightly frustrated nose for news.

  • “Yes, PRs are after your column inches and have something to promote, but they can give you good stories on slow news days. They usually have a great network too, go for a coffee with them, get to know them, work with them not against them.”
  • “Remember that most PR people have a life outside work. They may be more useful to you in a different guise.”

I think you’re getting the message.

I’ll leave the last word to someone who was once my deputy on a daily paper newsdesk. She was then, and remains now, a great source of wisdom.

“As a journalist, never assume that the PR has no experience of what you want. A good PR has generally learnt, as a journalist, about the pitfalls of bad PR. We’ve learnt to do our job from others’ mistakes. We want to get out a good story – it’s in our best interests. We do want to work with you, we do want to build relationships, we do want to build trust. We want journalists to challenge, to demand. I don’t believe PR is there to spoon-feed – that’s lazy on both sides. We are there to work WITH journalists not for them. Build a good relationship and the stories will evolve.”





How to be a new reporter in a new area

When I applied for my current job, I produced a mini-report, pretentiously entitled No More Sink or Swim.

I’d asked some editors for their thoughts about their staff’s training needs, and then pretty much shamelessly passed them off as my own.

One said: “We tend to just sit people down in front of a computer, and say ‘get on with it’. It’s sink or swim.”

When new advertising staff start in our businesses, several weeks of training and induction lie between them and their first ever conversation with a customer.

Traditionally, the best new reporters could expect was a whistle-stop tour of the office, a five-minute session on editorial systems – and a newslist which already had their name on it.

I’m glad to say things are changing.

Next week, I will embark on my third induction day, as a new journalist starts work in one of our offices.

Increasingly, each new starter now has a ticklist which ensures that every aspect of his or her working life from claiming expenses to uploading video is methodically covered.

And we spend some time preparing people for what lies ahead.

So, to get to the point of all this, what is the best advice for a reporter starting a new job in a new patch?

  • Realise what you don’t know. Without going all Donald Rumsfeld on you, you’ll have conscious gaps in your knowledge, but there will also be things you don’t know you don’t know. Still with me? One of the great ironies of local newspaper life is that people who initially know nothing about an area find themselves writing for readers who know everything about their home town or city. Master geographical locations, strange company names, and eccentric streets – if you work in Bath, you should know it’s Beau Street not Bow Street.
  • Get confident with the technology and systems. Make content management systems your friend, and make the fullest possible use of email calendars, reminders, contacts and task lists.
  • Start carving out a profile. Stick your head above the parapet on Twitter, make sure you get some business cards, and get out there to talk to real people. The key to contact-making is all about striking up genuine human conversations with real human beings. Talk to people about things other than stories, and the stories will come.
  • You’re going to make mistakes. When you do, own up and be angry with yourself for a while. But don’t beat yourself up too much. They will come like number 9 buses at times. What matters is that you learn from mistakes and don’t make the same ones twice.
  • Keep on top of your workload by making lists, planning your days, weeks and months, and having honest conversations with your colleagues and managers.
  • Journalists need a healthy balance between cynicism and optimism. Try to develop a sixth sense for people you can trust and story scenarios that ring true.
  • Never forget that what you write matters: your words can affect people’s lives and livelihoods.
  • Make the most of the expertise and experience all around you, whether it be on different approaches to writing, technological short cuts or cracking contacts.

Above all, enjoy telling stories.

And good luck.