Chris Powell
Nov 24, 2023

Journalists and PR people don’t have to be friends, but we rely on each other

Reporters may not always be your friend, but it doesn't mean they're your enemy either, opines The Message co-founder Chris Powell.

Photo: Markus Winkler via Unsplash.
Photo: Markus Winkler via Unsplash.

Many years ago, shortly after I started working at Marketing magazine (RIP), my then boss Stan Sutter wrote a deliberately provocative column called “10 Things I Hate About PR.” It was a witty bit of grievance airing, and it drew a tit-for-tat response from a PR practitioner entitled “10 Things I Hate About Journalists.”

Having now worked with PR people for more than two decades, I can objectively see that both “complainants” had valid points. While no journalist should rely solely on press releases to do their job, PR people play a vital role in facilitating the information that appears in media outlets around the world—including The Message (Campaign's Canadian equivalent)—each week.

I’ve been fortunate to work with many great PR people over the years. The best understand our role, are responsive to what we need and when (Everything and ASAP), and are experts at making the process as smooth as possible. They’re also the people in the middle, tasked with the unenviable task of keeping two key constituencies happy.

Which is not to say that the relationship can’t sometimes be tense.

Recently, I was chastised by a PR person for using back channels to find potentially newsworthy information about the acting talent in a new campaign. Multiple requests to the client’s PR team went unanswered, so I sought out the talent themselves, and asked them directly about their role.

The talent promptly informed the client, whose PR team informed me in no uncertain terms that all future requests had to go through them. They even used the word “insist,” which, as a greybeard who’s been doing this a long time, immediately got my back up. I understand where they’re coming from. I really do. But their response also betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of the function of journalism.

Our job is to seek out information and report on it, not passively wait for it to come to us. By its very nature, anything that comes to us via press release is something a PR client is keen for coverage of, and it constitutes a large portion of the content in trade journals such as ours.

But ours is a competitive industry, and we also want the stories and/or information our competitors don’t have. Sometimes, these are stories that a client might not be willing to share, or only share when the time suits them. Not surprisingly, that can lead to friction.

There’s a shopworn adage about our profession: “Journalists are not your friends.” I think it’s important to stress, however, that we’re also not the enemy. When it comes to PR, ours is a symbiotic relationship, and one doesn’t exist without the other.

But any good trade journal should be highly attuned and informed about the industry it covers, and proactively seek out stories that aren’t being press released: The good, the bad, and the interesting. Our first obligation is to our audience (even when that audience includes PR people).

Of course, I know PR practitioners have legitimate gripes about journalists, too. Based just on my own actions over the years, I know we can be slow to respond. Sometimes we don’t respond at all. We impose tight deadlines (although if you put out a release, your client should be prepared to speak to that release that day). We might even conduct an interview and then not run a story, with zero explanation why. We can be demanding and occasionally curt.

Of course, the digital-first companies present a stark contrast in media relations that increasingly makes me appreciate traditional PR more and more. The information that comes from companies like Google and Meta tends to flow just one way: Outward.

Their blog posts announcing new features or policy changes contain no press contact, and there’s zero expectation of an interview by either side. Even more galling was the juvenile response that greeted media queries sent to X earlier this year: A poop emoji. It’s a strategy that both finds justification in, and reinforces, the increasingly popular attacks on traditional journalism from both the left and right: “Don’t believe the media, just listen to what we tell you.”

Faced with that alternative, a little bit of tension—or even the occasional prickly email—feels entirely reasonable.

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