Building Relationships & Talking To Journalists: What’s The Big Deal With Communication?

So, earlier today, I saw a tweet that had been doing the rounds on ‘PR twitter’. It was posted by a journalist at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, and the overarching message was “PRs, don’t do this”.

Now I for one, sometimes get a little sick of the ‘PR bashing’ that goes around on Twitter. There’s a few journalists out there, some repeat offenders, guilty of sharing screenshots of emails, paired with humiliating comments. I remember once seeing a frequent ‘basher’ (now blocked), tweet: “what on earth is a digital PR 🙄” who then went on further to humiliate. The tweet also contained a clip of an email signature, where you could quite clearly work out the company that it belonged to. As far as I’m aware the original email was inoffensive and did nothing wrong, I think sometimes people just like to have a pop on social media at PRs to release the infuriation that some (not all) cause. I don’t condone this, never have done, never will. Everybody makes mistakes and most of the time it’s trivial anyway.

However, a whole can of worms was opened when this tweet surfaced today…

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I’ve completely redacted it, as the tweet has since been taken down, so I wanted to respect privacy…

Plenty of us, understandably, were outraged.

Journalists and PRs alike were replying, quote tweeting and sharing this around from the outset. The words ‘horrific’ and ‘appalling’ have been thrown around, and I think all of us are bewildered in unison.

Once again, the minority has acted irresponsibly, and I always worry this tars all of us in the communications industry with the same brush.

So today this leads me to write about something I’ve been meaning to for a while anyway: the importance of communicating in a proper manner, and in building a strong reputation for yourself as a PR practitioner.

Communicating: Why Is It So Important?

First and foremost, we work in communications, so at the very least anyone in the PR and Marketing industry should know how to communicate with other people. Surely that’s in the job description? Relationships are crucial when working in comms, whether you work in traditional or digital, public sector, in-house or agency… Good working relationships almost always equal success. With so many of us liaising with the media every day, I personally couldn’t imagine how difficult work would be if I didn’t have good relationships with key journalists. Knowing how to communicate and talk to others should not only be your most vital skill as a PR practitioner, but also the first one you learn. It’s not difficult to educate yourselves by observing those around you, and for asking advice. Even if you aren’t a natural-born communicator, you should be able to learn how to engage with people. And well, if you cannot articulate over email when a journalist asks a legitimate question, then you should really consider whether you’re in the right career.

Secondly, from what I’ve seen, the media industry is a close-knit one. Already, the tweet I posted above has over 800 likes, 461 retweets and so, so many replies. If you do something scandalous enough to place yourself at the centre of a ‘viral’ tweet, then it’s likely your name is going to crop up to all of the people you’re going to want to contact in the future. The industry can be unforgiving, and it’s quite likely that other journalists won’t want anything to do with you, if you’ve shown your hand and been offensive towards a fellow writer for no good reason. In just one email, this individual could have compromised the success of not only her entire campaign, but her whole business too. As Bex Henders quite rightly put it to me earlier, “reputation is Queen”.

Then, there’s also the idea that if you’re working within an industry, you become an advocate for it. Communicating is really important as, like I mentioned earlier, when a mistake like this is made it has the potential to tar others with the same brush. The PR industry has long faced scrutiny and mockery from people who stereotype. ‘Spindoctoring’ of days gone by and a few infamous individuals who branded themselves PR has resulted in PR quite literally having a PR problem. The work we do is often overlooked and underappreciated, especially by those who work in the press. When something like this happens, it only fuels the fire and undoes the hard work that many PR professionals do in proving that not only is our work vital, but credible and honest too. I think that’s why I feel things like this on a personal level, because I have so much faith and pride in the work that PR practitioners do, but when an incident like this occurs it almost feels like a step back for the industry, we just have to sit back and hope that sweeping assumptions aren’t made.

The Lessons To Be Learned

I can often be quite forgiving, and chalk out many things as mistakes. However, I think to do something as horrific as wishing cancer upon somebody, is something that can never be redacted. From somebody who works in that industry, no less. The mind boggles.

I’m not sure of the credibility of this brand, but I do think that the individual’s career at the very least will suffer thanks to this debacle. The internet is both a blessing and a curse in that once something is online, it very seldom goes away. Nevertheless, there are some lessons to be learned here.

There is of course, the obvious, don’t act in this way when a journalist makes an honest request to you. A momentary knock to your pride is not worth your whole career.

And then this incident also teaches us a few other things about communicating, too:

  • If you’re working in communications, be a good communicator. It really is that simple. And if you don’t know how, take the time to learn from others around you. Being able to build and sustain credible relationships is often how you can be really successful, so don’t overlook the importance of things such as manners and tone of voice.
  • Remember you’re an ambassador not only for your brand, but often for the entire industry. Do you really want the weight of a mistake on your shoulders for the rest of your career? Think about these things before making a decision.
  • One thing that perhaps shouldn’t be included, but is something that many of us often have to do at some point in our career is learn to take things on the chin. Sometimes you can have a really good campaign idea that gets knocked back, other times journalists can be short in their replies and it can be frustrating. Always be the bigger person and don’t lose sight of the bigger picture in order to quell a momentary feeling of anger.
  • Finally, your reputation is important. If you work in media relations, in particular, you’ll quickly find that the easier you are to work with, the more likely journalists are to come back to you time and time again – which is always a good result. I’ve known this from very early on in my career, which is why during my time at university I made the effort to build this blog and a professional personal brand. When I started working, I was always sure to be reliable and helpful when working with journalists, this led to many good relationships and better results in my work. You want to be the type of person that others would recommend getting in touch with. Long story short, build a reliable reputation for yourself, and you won’t regret it.

This probably goes for other industries, as well as PR. Obviously communicating is the bread of butter of public relations and marketing, but these skills are not confined to just one industry. There are plenty of careers that’ll require you to be a good communicator, so perhaps these lessons that can be learned may be useful to not just us PR guys, but others further afield too.

By all accounts, let me know what you think in the comments below or on Twitter. I’ve already (unsurprisingly) chatted with a few of you about this today, but would love to hear more opinions. Are there any more lessons to be learned that I missed? Let me know.

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