[PR Channel] What journalists want: The 10 commandments for PR folks

15 Dec,2011

By Ashraf Engineer


Whom do journalists love to hate? Public relations (PR) professionals probably wouldn’t top the list, but they’d come pretty close. The irony, of course, is that the journalist-PR executive relationship is deeply symbiotic – one can hardly do without the other.


But before I say anything else, you should know that I empathize. I know journalists can’t wait to get you off their back – unless they need you. In which case, you need to respond, like, yesterday.


How many times have you thought after an I-need-a-response-now ultimatum, ‘What do journalists really want?’


Here are a few commandments. Live by these and, who knows, the rocky relationship might just get smoother.


Thou shall be clear and concise

Most journalists work to a deadline and don’t have the time for rambling, rah-rah press releases. Say what you have to without taking up too many words. You’re working to a deadline too, so this should work to your advantage. A well-written yet short press release has far more value than a tsunami of words that has at the core just one paragraph of usable information.


Thou shall not promise what you can’t deliver

Years ago, when I worked for one of Mumbai’s leading newspapers, Nobel-winning mathematician John Nash visited the city. The PR agency managing the visit promised us an exclusive interview, with other newspapers getting access to Nash only the next day. Turned out the agency promised every newspaper the same thing. Imagine our shock when we saw Nash’s interviews everywhere. My newspaper stopped dealing with the agency altogether. The CEO had to come over and apologize, but things were never the same again – we kept the agency at arm’s length and treated every communication from it with suspicion.


Thou shall not peddle rubbish masquerading as news

Journalists have had it with ‘news’ that isn’t really, well, news. And surveys that are little more than a few colleagues being asked their opinion. Good journalists are discerning; they won’t let something like that get through. The bad journalists, you should have no use for – they won’t last and will never be in a position to help you or your clients.


Thou shall respect deadlines

This might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how often it is ignored. Nothing gets a journalist’s goat more than information/reactions not arriving on time. Your tardiness could slam the door shut on potential coverage. It could also destroy the goodwill that you and your firm might have with the newspaper concerned. Why risk it? Get it right.


Thou shall make clients, facts available

Journalists want people featured in the press release to be available, and also the facts and figures. There’s no point in pushing a story if its basic building blocks are out of reach. So, if your client has a new CEO, it’s not enough to just say it. The CEO must be on hand to articulate his vision and his plan. Unless you do that, a journalist would see no value attached to the story. Journalists aren’t carrier pigeons – they aren’t satisfied with only the information you give them. They may see a storyline you don’t, and would need support accordingly.


Another sticking point is case studies. Wherever relevant, make sure you have good ones. Journalists love them because they make the story come alive. Make sure they support the larger story, make sure they’re well written.


Thou shall know your target newspaper

When I was working for a lifestyle newspaper, I was often flooded with press releases that weren’t relevant to me – from a new type of spark plug to a stent that made heart surgery cheaper.

What were those PR executives thinking? We covered society events, fashion, cinema and television. Spark plugs? Really?

Don’t carpet-bomb the media with releases. That’ll only result in a lot of dead trees and no stories to show for it. Read newspapers, know what they cover. Most good newspapers don’t simply run a press release; they use it to spark off an idea.


Thou shall stay away from jargon

Using jargon only creates an illusion that you know more than you actually do. And, like an illusion, it’ll shatter at the first challenge. Besides, it turns journalists off.

So, the next time you’re tempted to say ‘ponzi scheme’, just say ‘a fraudulent investment operation that pays returns to investors not from any actual profit, but from money paid by subsequent investors’.


Thou shall address releases to the right people

Have an UPDATED list of journalists and the newspapers they’re working for. My last job involved handling news specials for a leading daily. Yet, I was bombarded with companies’ financial results. On the irritation scale, it ranked only below being addressed as ‘Mrs Ashraf Engineer’ (and that happened too!).

A newspaper I worked for even received releases for a journalist who had passed away!

Send your releases to the right people, make sure you address them properly and – for God’s sake – make sure they’re alive. Otherwise, guess where they end up. It’s no wonder they say ‘delete’ is the journalist’s favourite key.


Thou shall be well informed

I’ve lost count of the number of times the PR professional at the other end of the line didn’t have even basic information about his/her client – size, location, turnover, etc. Apart from seriously harming your own and your agency’s reputation, it creates a poor impression about your client.

Wait, weren’t you hired to do the exact opposite?


Thou shall know this – a newspaper is not just a print product any more

Every newspaper now has a website. The traditional press release format was developed over 100 years ago for print journalists. But they’ve changed. Most people get their news from the web first. This has sent tremors through newsrooms and altered them forever. In the process, the PR professional’s job has been altered too.

Help the journalists do their jobs by providing graphics – and, where required, multimedia – that are relevant and on time.

It doesn’t end there. Journalists might require quotes from experts and client executives. Your story may never see the light of day unless you travel this extra mile. So, help journalists help you.


Ashraf Engineer is Head – Content at Hanmer MSL. After a 16-year career in journalism, he now heads the high-value content operation of the agency. He can be contacted at ashraf.engineer@hanmermsl.com.

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