Looking for a Public Relations Agency? Use our Free matching service to find the right agency for you.

User login

PR Ethics #101: How not to talk to journalists


After twenty-odd years of working on both sides of the fence, as both a PR and a journalist, I’m strongly of the opinion that the first and most important lesson of PR ethics should be “how not to talk to journalists”.

Why? Let me try to explain by telling the same story that I have told to countless junior account execs and managers over the years.

In my first PR agency job, as a fledgling account exec for The Agency That Will Remain Unnamed, I was told by my MD to think of the numerous journalists I was pitching to as ‘targets in a shooting range’.

“Your job is to take aim, fire and shoot at them,” he casually informed me, “and then make sure that you kill them. Dead.”

The “shooting” he was referring to actually meant, “emailing them a press release”. And “killing them” meant ensuring that they covered the press release in print.

Lesson 1: the journalist is not your enemy

It was, and still is, a bizarre and twisted way of perceiving the relationship between a PR and a journalist. And as I progressed through my career, from videogames PR to consumer tech journalism and then into B2B technology PR it became clearer that this weird rant about killing journalists was a symptom of a deeply ingrained problem in the PR and media publishing industries.

On the flipside of the Kill The Journalist coin, for example, games and tech journalists often speak conspiratorially of ex-journalists moving into PR roles as having “gone to the dark side”.

The lesson for PRs here should be clear. If you continue to think of journalists as mere targets in your Excel spreadsheets to be converted into coverage for your client, and treat them as such when you actually speak to them about the story you are pitching, you really are getting off on the wrong foot!  

Lesson 2: the journalist is not (always) your friend

The reverse of this peculiar way of thinking is the tendency for PRs to treat journalists like they are their best mates down the pub.

If you don’t personally know the journalist who you are pitching to, then the only thing that is sure to annoy them more than treating them like a bothersome stepping-stone on the way to obtaining client coverage is inappropriate “matey talk”.

A pitch, to be successful, needs to be open, honest, well-informed and to the point. Journalists, particularly news reporters, are time poor. They genuinely don’t want to hear about what you’ve been up to on the weekend. Not because they are rude, but purely because it slows them down from doing their job.

Lesson 3: talk to them, don’t “reach out”

Finally, always remember that the point of your pitch is to focus the journalist’s attention on the relevance or the impact of what your client is trying to do with its product or service.

Please don’t waste their time or try their patience with flim-flam and marketing jargon. And please, whatever you do, don’t tell them you are “reaching out” to them. Only The Four Tops do that.

Instead, just talk to them, like you would talk to any other reasonable, intelligent human being. As you’ve probably got around thirty seconds (tops) to make your pitch clearly and to ascertain if they want the story, it really does help if you don’t come across as a marketing robot!

Lesson 4: know what they want, and please don’t beg

The last lesson in how not to talk to journalists is equally simple: do your research.

Find out what their interests are and take a look at a few of the recent stories relevant to your client that they have been writing about.

That way, you not only avoid the painful experience of pitching a completely irrelevant story to a (rightfully) annoyed reporter, you are able to establish a quick connection and understanding with the journalist about the reason for your call.

In short, this PR Ethics #101 class can be summarised as follows. The journalist is far more likely to be interested in your client’s pitch if you:

A.   don’t treat them like a fool

B.   don’t treat them with barely-concealed contempt

C.   don’t waste their time by asking them irrelevant personal questions

D.   know who they are and what they write about

And just to spare yourself the embarrassment, please remember this at all times: they know that you want them to write about your clients. Pleading with them is never going to work!