Non-Top-10 List for Journalists

I have come to loathe top-10 lists, and I have stopped writing them. They are a sucker’s play for pageviews, although I have always used top-10s mainly for their presentation value. Now that they’re everywhere and displacing original content, I’ve got something of a personal boycott going (hence, why there have been none from me recently at Betanews). It’s with that introduction I come to maim a top-10 list posted last week. “The truth about the newsroom—straight-up!” offers 10 things reporters “want from [public relations] pitch to coverage”.

Deanna White tweeted about the post, to which I responded after reading: “My list would look nothing like this. If that’s what my peers want, someone pull out journalism’s obituary & run it” (News organizations generally keep prewritten obituaries ready to run the second someone famous enough dies).

I laughed at Deanna’s list, which I at first put in this post but later removed before publishing. Click through the link in the previous paragraph to read her list, if you want. I picked just one of the 10 to flame here: “Make it easy for me to cover your story—send me multimedia that will add to your news.” PR people want you to cover their story and to cover it as pitched. By making it easy and by the journalist being lazy, that outcome is more likely than when journalists do their own reporting. By the way, I make a distinction between PR pitchers and season spokespeople. The latter often is more useful to the organization represented and to the reporter.

Pitches and Lies
My list is succinct: Don’t pitch me. If I want something I’ll ask for it, and usually you the PR rep are in the way of my getting it. My experience is this: Most PR people lie to me most of the time. I make the assertion with no malice or resentment. It’s simply true.

Perhaps other journalists look for pitches. If your writing depends on PR pitches or, worse, rewriting press releases, then by my definition you aren’t a journalist. That’s fine by the PR pitchers, who want you to turn their story into a home run. In the PR business, three pitches and they’re out—not the journalist.

Confession: Yes, as a younger reporter I accepted some PR pitches, mainly because that’s what my employers’ expected. There’s no one holding that over me now, and I’ve come to distrust PR pitchers over the years. I’ve been lied to far too often, which isn’t surprising. PR reps are paid to protect their clients’ image and to promote its brands.

I do occasionally respond to company employee blog posts, as I did yesterday at Betanews about Microsoft bringing back the Windows 7 Family Pack. I make exceptions for blog posts because:

  • They aren’t pitched directly to me
  • The writer is a person I can track down for follow-up questions
  • Post authors often work for the organization rather than outside PR agency
  • I can quote a person who is identified rather than an unnamed spokesperson

Granted, many corporate bloggers are marketers, but I can see more what I’m getting from them.

Helpful Advice
For my fellow journalists, I offer a few tips for wringing out the truth from marketing professionals and, more importantly, media-coached executives:

  • Be polite. I hear many journalists describe PR reps as flaks. I don’t. My goal is to be polite but aggressive. Flak makes the PR person somehow inhuman. Hey, they’re people trying to do a job, too. Friendliness will get you more cooperation, and that goes for all your reporting interactions. PR reps aren’t your enemies, but they’re not your friends either.
  • Record everything. If it’s an in-person interview audio record the conversation. Emailing or, better, instant message conversations are another way to keep a record. The recording prevents there from being lasting accusations of misquoting or quoting out of context later on, plus you’ll get better quotes. Additionally, over time, by reviewing the interviews you’ll better discern when people are lying or being truthful.
  • Interrupt often. As soon as your eyes roll upwards, the spokesperson isn’t giving what you need or, worse, is working to prevent your getting it. So cut off the person talking. Interruption allows you to take control of the conversation and even fluster the spokesperson into revealing something truthful.
  • Look for signs the response is prepared or canned. Coached executives or prepared PR reps tend to speak clearly and stick to a single topic. Someone keeping constant or near-constant eye contact is lying. Your questions are getting somewhere when the ahs and pauses interrupt the answer’s flow. That’s when the chance of getting honest answers is greatest.
  • If you ask a question and get an answer to a different one, ask again—and again and again. Media-coached executives will respond with prepared talking points that have nothing to do with your question. Rephrase and ask until you are answered. Interrupt if necessary, so the deflected answering doesn’t exhaust your interview time.

Enough with the pointers. If I don’t stop, the advice will turn into a top-10 list.

Image Credit:Outdoor Girl” by William Johnson, from the Smithsonian Institution