After having worked in radio, television and newspaper newsrooms before entering the business of public relations, one of the first unexpected realizations I had was that there were days I felt more like a reporter in the field of PR than I did on those days I had to scramble from task to task in a newsroom.
The reasons may not have been so obvious then, but they were pretty basic.
When you have to deal with the non-stop flood of information coming at you in a newsroom, sometimes double-checking certain facts, sources or information can be impossible. So, you have to prioritize to determine which claims, which sources and which content have to be verified, and which you simply have to trust. This can lead to feelings that your role is primarily a pass-through for information flow.
When you work in public relations, the volume of stories and new content you have to process is less, even if you work in an agency for multiple clients. As a result, you have more time to employ journalistic skills, such as verifying facts, challenging assumptions, double-checking sources and finding other sources to give a story balance. But it’s more essential than that. Since every statement or piece of data will be highly scrutinized, you have an obligation to your organization to make sure it can hold up.
So, whether you went to journalism school or not, it pays to develop your own set of journalistic skills to be the best media relations professional you can be.
In previous speeches and articles, I’ve recommended that PR people think of themselves as “internal reporters” because I believe it’s core to much of the media relations, and crisis communications and issues management work we do.
With this in mind, here are three rules to follow.
Yes, you may have gotten the information from your own Marketing Department. Perhaps the data was generated by R&D or Finance. If you accept that information on face value, you risk allowing faulty information to enter the public domain and ultimately come back to haunt the organization.
Recommendation: If the story involves financial information, pull out your calculator and do the math.
Literally, make sure it all adds up. Then in the process, if certain numbers seem confusing, ask questions so you know the context for every number or piece of data you are including in your own content. If your Marketing Director makes a claim that this new product is “the first of its kind,” make sure that’s true.
Be a reporter and do some independent digging, and work diligently to make sure such a claim will stand up to scrutiny later.
Even if your work involves an advocacy position on one side of a highly visible issue, one of the most effective ways to attain credibility is to find common ground. The way to do that is through balanced communications.
Recommendation: If your company or organization is a member of an industry group or organization, tap their people and resources to round out your own content. While you may be working to advocate on behalf of a particular point of view, your content should be credible and provide larger context for the story at hand.
Sometimes, an executive in a company may have false hopes in the general newsworthiness of a particular story.
The most classic example is a company’s anniversary. Anniversary stories can be the death of any PR effort. While there are many creative things public relations pros can do to give an organizational anniversary real newsworthiness, the actual anniversary is usually a yawner.
The key for the PR pro is to know when it’s time to provide a reality check and give the story idea a soft landing.
Recommendation: To give it the old college try, come up with events, initiatives or activities that honor or respect the anniversary and can be tied to it, while offering a certain amount of newsworthiness of their own. One example would be to establish a $25,000 scholarship fund in honor of a 25th anniversary. Still, you may get to the point where you realize you can’t make lemonade out of this lemon. If it seems the organization is stuck on promoting a particular story angle you know cannot succeed, you may have to break the bad news before you are forced to pitch a doomed story.
These are just three journalistic practices that come to play when working in the field of PR.
What they really represent, however, is a change in mindset.
If you work in PR, the media counts on you to serve as a credibility filter to make sure the ideas and information they receive is sound. Your organization counts on you to make sure the same content can withstand the scrutiny of the media and others once made public. For these reasons and others, it’s in everyone’s best interest that you think of yourself as the first reporter on the scene, checking everything for credibility and newsworthiness from the start.
Tim O’Brien is owner of Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications, a corporate communications consultancy. He has over 30 years’ experience in communications and started his career as a journalist.
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