A reporter sounds off on the 'Guard Dog' approach to PR

Guest post by Carly Weeks

 Image: Istockphoto.com

Image: Istockphoto.com

Journalists and public relations professionals have an interesting relationship. They depend on each other to do their jobs, but typically, they have very different goals in mind. 

For journalists, the main concern is securing the interview, getting the facts and hopefully walking away with enough usable quotes or sound bites to make their story shine.

For public relations professionals, the goal is to stay on message, stay on message and then stay on message a little bit more.

It's understandable that journalists and PR pros will occasionally have moments of conflict and tension, given their competing priorities. Journalists are typically on deadline, demand interviews with only a few minutes notice and may blow a small fuse if they're told the spokesperson isn't available right away. Meanwhile, PR professionals want time to prep their spokespeople, ensure they understand the issues at hand and develop key messages to be used in the interview. With a little give and take from both sides, a compromise can usually be found. 

But what happens when well-intentioned PR pros misinterpret their duty to be guard dog over their organization, refusing to schedule interviews, being unnecessarily difficult and hostile toward journalists? While this is the exception and not the norm, it does happen more often than you might think.

Recently, I was trying to schedule an interview with an industry association I had covered in the past. Many of the stories I have written about this industry have highlighted shortcomings or other problems with products. But I was still surprised when the director of communications gave me the Guard Dog attitude when I tried to schedule an interview. I was asked to provide a list of questions and, when I indicated that providing a list of questions goes against policy, I was kept on the phone for an additional 20 minutes while I was asked to explain, again and again, exactly what I was looking for. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out they didn't want to give me the interview. Finally, after a day passed, I received an email with some information that didn't answer any of my questions and was told it would finally be possible to schedule the interview. By that point, however, I was up against a deadline and there was no time left to speak to the organization. 

There have been many instances where I have been ignored, sworn at, hung up on and otherwise insulted for calling people and asking questions (in other words, doing my job). Maybe this is some really avant garde PR strategy with which I'm not familiar. In any case, I can't help but think that hostility, aggression and bullheadedness are not what your organization or its executives are trying to convey. And it certainly doesn't cultivate the 'relations' part of 'media relations'.  

So, why is it a bad idea to adopt a siege mentality or to consistently throw up roadblocks for journalists? Well, for starters, just because you refrain from making a spokesperson available doesn't mean the story is going to go away. Journalists can (and will) cover the story without you. But wouldn't you rather have a story (even a negative one) that includes your point of view?

One major Canadian brand I cover only deals with me by email. It's certainly not ideal because it increases the chance of misinterpretation, but I have established a working rapport with the PR contact at the company over the past several years and I know I can rely on the organization to provide me with information or to answer questions in a timely manner, however controversial the topic may be. Recently, the company pitched me a very newsy story that they hoped would also provide them with some good publicity. I'm not in the business of advertising, but I wrote the story because it represented an important development that mattered to the public. That's how a long-term media relationship should work. The news media isn't something that can be simply pulled out when you need them and then ignored when the circumstances might not be entirely favourable to your organization. 

Good journalists will never stop asking tough questions. It's our job. Instead of instinctively going into Guard Dog mode, however, consider that as a front-line communicator and representative of your company's brand, you have an important role to play in ensuring your company's story gets told and that the lines of communication stay open with the media.