The tension between reporters and publicists, politicians, business leaders—and nearly everyone else with a message they want to share or keep quiet—is nothing new.
“Back in the Colonial Days, speeches and letters were published outlining the colonial grievances in pamphlets or broadsides,” writes educator Lydia Loureiro in an article published by our July Nonprofit of the Month, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
“Through these documents, colonists attempted to create democratic change within their political structure,” Loureiro explains. “However, as time passed and tensions rose, these complaints formed the basis for the Declaration of Independence.”
A turning point came during the Spanish-American War (April–August 1898), which is considered to be both a turning point in the history of propaganda and the beginning of the practice of yellow journalism.
During the 10-week-long war, which grew out of US interests in Cuba’s fight for independence from Spain, American newspapers fanned Americans’ interest in the war by fabricating atrocities, which justified US intervention in a number of Spanish colonies worldwide.
William Hearst, the owner of The New York Journal, was involved in a circulation war with Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and reportedly saw the conflict as a way to sell papers. Publicists soon followed suit, realizing that “sensational sold.” To varying degrees, that trend has continued ever since.
The trick is getting reporters and editors to pay attention to a story—that is, your story—knowing that publications have their own agenda.
So how are we dealing with this built-in tension today? For insight, we asked British freelance writer Jeremy Hazlehurst.
Scroll down to read our Q&A from from “PR Rules: The Playbook—The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Supersizing Your Small Business.” Available for sale: July 2014
Breaking the Tension: How to Talk to Reporters So They’ll Listen
￼British freelance writer Jeremy Hazlehurst Offers Insight
By Hope Katz Gibbs, with Kathleen McCarthy
PR Rules: The Playbook
Jeremy Hazlehurst, editor-at-large of Management Today, says he is bombarded every day with email pitches from PR people hoping to entice him to write about their client or company.
“Most days you are working hard and trying to hit deadlines … and if you are an editor, too, you’re dealing with picture editors, and commissioning writers and photo shoots,” says Hazlehurst, who covers business and financial news and has written for the Daily Telegraph and The London Times. “If we don’t respond to a pitch, often that’s why.”
He certainly doesn’t wish PR pitches would go away. “I like receiving them, because you never know what will spark an idea for a story.”
Here’s his advice.
PR Rules: As a journalist who covers the public relations industry, how do you see PR?
Jeremy Hazlehurst: There are some bad PR reps who will lie to you—and worse. When I worked for a financial newspaper, I’d deal with PR reps who would simply threaten to sue if you published a (perfectly true) story about their client or employer misbehaving. Other times when I was on a tight deadline, I’d ask a PR rep a question, and they would get back to me at 6 p.m. with a 400-page document and say: “The answer’s in there. You find it.” That style of PR shows a total lack of ethics and competence. It stops the press from performing its legitimate function.
In general, however, good PR reps realize that they can’t behave like that—they have to face a bad story and deal with it. They help you with a story and understand that you have to be critical and ask questions. Journalists have a duty to ask the questions that their readers would ask if they had the time to investigate the story. If PR reps want an advertisement, they can buy one.
PR Rules: What type of PR pitches do you respond to?
Jeremy Hazlehurst: None, really. It’s rare for PR people to really understand what works as a story, at a particular time, and for a particular publication. Interview offers might work. Too much detail is a turn-off. Give me in one line who is up for an interview, or what the idea is. Thousands of words of detail are a waste. I just don’t have time.
PR Rules: Tell us about your article for Management Today, “Spin Masters: How PR Is Taking Over the World.”
Jeremy Hazlehurst: I think that the days of spin are over. The Internet means that people are better informed about businesses. You can’t just tell lies and expect not to be found out. I hope that businesses will become better—in the sense of giving people what they want.
The other thing to remember is that the role of PR or communications professionals has widened. These days businesses interact with customers directly through Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and so on. If you are running all those things, then obviously you need more people in PR. If you have people at high levels in a business who understand how all this works, then it stands to reason that those businesses will be more innovative when it comes to communications.
Also, it’s the PR people who … are the ones listening to what people want, and they are telling their company’s board what customers like and don’t like about the business. People know more about businesses these days, and they don’t want to buy from businesses that use child-labor, pollute, or underpay their staff.
PR Rules: In your Management Today article, you quoted PR expert Tim Bell as saying, “Twitter is a sewer. The Internet is a sewer. If you want to live in a transparent world, then someone has to provide information about you. If you don’t want someone else to, you have to do it yourself. That’s what PR people do.” Do you agree with Bell’s comment?
Jeremy Hazlehurst: The problem with Twitter is that it is an echo-chamber for ill-thought-out, first-reaction ideas. And people follow a crowd. Take the release last year of a 30-minute video about Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony, which was crass and simplistic, but went around the world in no time at all. People who know about Africa despaired.
This is a problem with social media—people are often ill-informed or don’t understand what constitutes libel, and they don’t realize that they can get in trouble for speaking their mind. Reputations can be trashed quickly and groundlessly. In the old days, newspapers stood between writers and readers. There are good and bad things about that, but one of the good things was that people didn’t publish things without fact-checking them. On the Internet, anyone can say anything, so we need to be able to deal with that. For PR reps, that’s about learning how to react to lies.
*Learn more about on Jeremy Hazlehurst on Twitter: @jhazlehurst