That time a reporter made me cry and what it taught me about PR (#ThrowbackThursday)
We all have bad days here or there.
No matter your profession, stress can overwhelm and we all have our moments of giving into a snarky remark or responding to an email or phone call from a selfish state. Regardless of how positive a person you are or how much you want to be kind -- life happens and so do rude statements sometimes.
Let me start by saying, in my entire career I can count on less than one hand my interactions with truly disgruntled reporters. So, by disgruntled, I don’t mean just having an “off day” or being a little edgy due to deadlines. I’m talking about the journalist who starts out mad with seemingly no apparent cause or attempt to explain his or her reasoning, and proceeds to get angrier, combative and demeaning the more you interact with him or her.
It doesn’t matter how targeted your original pitch was because, even if they agreed to cover your idea, they are in a temporary or self-imposed permanent state of rudeness.
That Time a Reporter Made Me Cry
Such was the scenario I faced early on in my PR career, while pitching a story idea for a client. I sent a targeted pitch to a major industry outlet my client really wanted coverage in and was thrilled when the reporter got back to me quickly and expressed interest in covering the story. I noticed that the reporter had an outline of initial needs with bold and CAPITAL LETTERS outlining dates and requirements for the story. I responded quickly and provided all the initial background information then shot my client an email outlining the coverage opportunity before leaving work for the evening.
A few days later, I received a very angry email stating I was late for his deadline and to call the reporter immediately. The email rattled and alarmed me. I double checked my dates and didn’t see where I had missed a deadline. Armed with the email as a reference, I called the reporter.
Not only was he even more livid over the phone, he reamed me out, badgering me on my “lack of professionalism to not even meet the most basic deadlines” and threatened to go straight to my client to make his point. I was caught completely off guard and could barely get off the phone before I burst into tears. I had been attacked and bullied.
I felt shaken and confused. What had I done to make him so upset? I had already got my client’s hopes up for the coverage and didn’t want to disappoint them or my team. So, I regained my composure (mostly), grabbed my supervisor and explained. Once we realized he had mistyped the deadline, which was the reason for the confusion, she helped me get the reporter what he needed and save the coverage opportunity for our client.
Lessons Learned: Salvage the Relationship or Decline the Opportunity
This was a very hard experience for me to go through. It was a hard and fast life lesson, which equipped me for even more adverse scenarios down the road. For example, one of my employees encountered a similar situation with an angry reporter. Since I had that past negative experience, I knew that the best solution was to hop on a call early on with the reporter and try to salvage the opportunity.
Turns out, this reporter was quite possibly worse than my last experience! So much so, we advised our client to decline the opportunity due to the risk of working with someone so volatile.
How to Diffuse a Disgruntled Reporter
As I said, these scenarios are extremely rare. In most cases, you CAN salvage the relationship if the other party is willing to be flexible and take responsibility. In most cases, turbulence comes from a miscommunication or misaligned expectations. Be humble and work to make peace but don’t allow someone to bully you or a member of your team.
Characteristics (aka warning signs) to look out for include but are not limited to: extreme impatience, quick, short and demanding phone or email replies, and a downright rude tone. Unfortunately, a person in this state may even say hurtful things and work to make your life a living hell for as long as you both shall interact. It sucks.
- Get on the phone. If it appears a miscommunication has happened, it’s best to get on the phone and have a voice to voice. The phone allows an opportunity to remember we are real humans trying to do our jobs and provides the asset of tone of voice.
Stay KIND and calm – you are not in trouble and you didn’t do anything irreversibly wrong. You may have miscommunicated or even made a mistake. Get on the phone and explain the situation and be prepared with a solution that will make things right.
Take control if possible while remaining kind (but firm) and calm. Do not allow someone to badger you or demean you. Explain your position, offer a resolution and work to get on the same page. If there does not seem to be an amicable solution, ask if you can connect him or her with your supervisor. Often, this will help diffuse emotions and provide a “clean slate” through a previously uninvolved party.
Some people are determined to be selfish, regardless of what you do or say. I’ve had this happen with other PR pros and reporters – sometimes, a person is just mad and unhappy. These are not the sort of people you want to collaborate with or expose your clients to. Do not be afraid to decline an opportunity if it is in the best interest of your client and team.
It IS possible to salvage a media relationship. Go into any conflict of this nature with the attitude that a resolution is possible. Keep your cool and do your best to accommodate and be a resource. Be humble, kind and most importantly – remain calm.
Have you encountered a conflict with a reporter or PR pro that left you wondering what the heck happened? How did you resolve it? Share your experience and advice and let’s talk it out!
Kate Finley is the Founder and CEO of Belle Communications, an integrated marketing communications agency specializing in PR, social media and content marketing for CPG, lifestyle, nonprofit, food and restaurant brands. Kate is a young entrepreneur who founded her agency at the age of 28 with the goal of equipping brands with the tools and exposure they need to THRIVE. Kate and her team have secured more than 400MM media impressions and 2500 coverage opportunities for clients, including coverage with TODAY, Oprah, CNN and more. She has been featured in PRWeek, CNNMoney, Cision, PRDaily and Spin Sucks.
Photo: Tissue box via Shutterstock