Schwartz: Reporters are Not Your Friends: Managing Media Relationships

April 17, 2013

The following article is reprinted with permission from PR News’ Media Training Guidebook, Volume 5

Whether we like it or not, our ability to get stories placed—and perspectives heard—in major media markets has as much to do with our individual relationships with reporters as it does with the quality of our arguments. Reporters get hundreds of press releases each day via email—too many for them to look at, much less read. This reality makes relationship building with reporters and producers even more critical than it was a decade ago, before emails, social media, and online news stories cluttered the landscape.

The fact is: relationships are as important and beneficial for reporters as they are for those of us vying to get our news heard. In a media environment where major networks judge their performance by whether they got the news correct and first, reporters rely on sources for information that gives them an advantage over their peers.

The challenge remains how to train clients, staff or the leadership within your organization to successfully build and sustain relationships with reporters. Marketing and PR professionals must highlight the hidden risks associated with how these relationships are maintained. There is a fine line between having a professional relationship with a reporter and having a friendship with a reporter, but it is a dangerous line to cross. Practitioners must guide their clients and spokespeople in how to constructively create and develop relationships with reporters, while at the same time taking steps to maintain an appropriate professional distance.

Building the Relationship

It can be a daunting task to decide who and how to identify those reporters with whom it makes sense to make a special effort to get to know. It can be even more daunting to train someone else to be effective in making those relationships.

The first step should be working with your team to evaluate what type of media strategy is best suited to your organization. Are you looking for quantity of coverage, or quality? If quantity of coverage, meaning that you want to be able to demonstrate saturation in specific markets or publications, you might consider special outreach to online writers. These reporters are generally expected to turn out more than one article a day, and are often looking for more fresh content than reporters assigned to a specific beat. If quality, meaning one article in the New York Times, then focus your attention and be aggressive in your engagement.

Reporters rely on sources for information that gives them an advantage over their peers.


Who: Most of us are focused on getting our message to beat reporters, which means most of us are competing with each other to be relevant on a daily basis. To make the most out of this effort, there are some key questions that you should evaluate. After you develop a list of the reporters who are regularly covering your sector, the next step is to apply various criteria to help organize and identify the key contacts to connect with that may help cut through the chatter:

  • Which are the most important outlets in my field?
  • What reporter is the most respected/read in my field?
  • Who is likely to have the most time to meet in person or speak on the phone?
  • Who is based in my city or town?
  • Which reporters are focused on long-term, feature articles versus breaking news?
  • Who has something to prove? (This is one of my favorite factors to consider. Which reporters have been neglected by others in your field? Who is hungry for a break, and may be more willing to spend the time to dig deep and really learn about your product, company or issue?)

How: Once you have a wish list of the top reporters with whom you want to build relationships, how do you do it? Cold calling is a tried and true option, but I have found it to rarely be as successful as we would all like. Here are three alternatives to help you train your team to get off on the right foot:

  1. Take advantage of other people’s media events. Whether you are at a competitor’s launch or an event coordinated by a similar or competing organization, you should not pass up the opportunity to turn it to your advantage. Go to the media registration table and look at the sheet—who do you know, and who do you want to meet? Approach the reporters who are waiting for the event to begin and network with them—pass out your business cards. Make sure reporters know who you are. Putting a face to the name can make a huge difference when a press release with your name on it lands in their inbox. 
  2. Invest in relationship-building. There are dozens of conferences every year, often organized by beat, that allow PR professionals to attend, present and/or exhibit. Though sometimes costly, these opportunities can prove to be extremely fruitful. These conferences encourage participants to interact with each other and can give you the five minutes you need to make a first impression. They also provide the chance to connect with reporters who are outside your geographic region.
    Putting a face to the name can make a huge difference when a press release with your name on it lands in their inbox.
  3. Don’t underestimate the power of a compliment. PR professionals work hard to rise above the crowd; so do reporters. Members of the media vie for recognition just like everyone else – and they balance the pressure to produce the next “big” story with constant attacks on their credibility and the difficult economic realities of their industry. See a story that was well done but does not mention your organization? Email a note to the reporter complimenting his work, and making a pitch to meet/talk about a relevant angle that might be intriguing to him. You would be surprised how rarely reporters get compliments from sources, and how positively they may react.

All of this engagement, though, cannot substitute for having something relevant to say. Early in my career, I convinced my organization to pay for me to exhibit at the top conference for reporters who covered my beat. I was in overdrive—networking, exchanging cards, even hitting the karaoke club with several high profile anchors and reporters. But two weeks later, the same people who were fighting to sing a duet with me would barely return my calls. The fact was, my content still was not sufficiently relevant or interesting for them to report on. I had failed to take a critical step—asking them what type of content they were looking for, and what angle would interest them. They may have had a face to put with the name, but I failed to have a story prepared worth writing about.

Sustaining the Relationship

Once a successful connection has been made with a reporter, it is important that you continue to nurture and sustain it. This is something that we as practitioners often forget in the hustle and bustle of our work day, and it’s an essential tool for us to highlight as we train our teams. Whether it is grabbing coffee or staying on the lookout for exclusive opportunities to offer, you should always be thinking about ways to keep reporters engaged. If you wait until you have a time-sensitive issue to connect with members of the media, you are putting yourself at a disadvantage.

Keep a list of reporters handy. When things are slow, go through the list and call or email a few reporters that you have not heard from recently. As strategic opportunities for stories arise, you should make sure you spread them around to different reporters. One reporter may get advance notice on an announcement; another may be invited to accompany a principal on a trip. Although each effort may not be rewarded with a story, this exercise will keep your team focused on making the effort to maintain these relationships so you are not at a major disadvantage when breaking news occurs.

Relationships with reporters require continuing attention and cultivation. The easiest way to continue to build on an established relationship with a reporter is to keep the flow of news coming. Your team should think creatively about ways to stimulate interest in programs and initiatives. Analyze current coverage to look at new and innovative ways to get your message across. Whether or not you are engaging the interest of reporters with whom you are trying to cultivate a relationship is a good way to measure whether your PR program has grown stale.

Maintaining Enough Distance? Check Yourself.

Before a member of your team ends up in a situation that compromises the team, or a reporter they have been working with, here is a checklist of things to discuss as you teach clients and spokespeople to keep a professional distance:

  • Do you and members of the press that you have relationships with have a clear and mutual understanding of what “off the record,” “on background” or “on deep background” mean?
  • Have you shared anything with a reporter that you would be embarrassed to read on the cover of your home paper? Could you tell your boss?
  • Are there things you have shared with a reporter that you regret?
  • Does one of you typically pick up the tab when you go out?
  • Have you felt betrayed, personally offended, or personally hurt – as opposed to professionally disappointed – by an article a reporter has written?
  • Has giving a story to a specific reporter damaged your relationship with another?

Beware the Relationship

One of the biggest challenges to developing relationships with the media is striking the right balance between professional relationship and friendship. This is a challenge that we must identify and discuss with our teams and our clients.

It is easy for relationships to cross the line from professional to personal—you have gotten to know each other, scratched each other’s backs a few times on varied stories, and maybe even shared a few off-the-record insights. But at the end of the day, a reporter has obligations to his profession. So do we. If you neglect to recognize this reality, you risk putting yourself and your organization in a dangerous position.

One of the first things I say to my staff, clients and spokespeople when engaging with the media is, “Reporters are not your friends.” I say it over and over. And yet, I am as guilty as anyone of forgetting the mantra. Some PR professionals are lucky, and have never found themselves in a situation where they have lost this balance. But for most of us, there has been a moment of truth.

Building relationships is not an exact science, but there are tools that can help you train your principals, staff and clients to navigate the waters with greater ease. A PR program that doesn’t include specific outreach to journalists in a non-deadline setting is not realizing its potential. But the practitioner who is out late every night buying the last round of drinks with beat reporters will learn soon enough the peril he is creating for himself and his organization.

Think carefully and strategically about the relationships you want to cultivate—make specific efforts that are consistent with your overall PR strategy. Your clients, and their PR strategy, will be stronger for it. PRN

Melissa Schwartz (@MSchwartz3) is the Vice President for Strategy and External Affairs at The Bromwich Group, a strategic consulting firm in Washington, D.C. Schwartz has provided strategic communications and public affairs support on a wide range of global issues and sectors over the past decade. At both political and nonprofit organizations, she has developed and implemented strategic communications plans focusing earned media and community organizing on local, state, federal and international levels, with additional expertise in media training, message development, media relations and crisis management.

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