Thursday, March 28, 2013

Don't get caught by a quid pro quo approach to media relations

Some unlikely partners go surprisingly well together, like chocolate and peanut butter. Not so for the expectation of a quid pro quo--"this for that" in Latin--when you're dealing with reporters. Media relations pros should know that, but sources often do not. It's an easy way to get caught: You have a tempting vision of the chocolate blending with the peanut butter, but it'll wind up more like what the Brits would call chalk and cheese, polar opposites. Next time you're working with a reporter, don't forget that these two flavors don't taste so good together. Do these examples sound familiar?
  • "I talked to him for an hour and all he quoted was 'Absolutely not' in the story. I deserve more space!" True for many kinds of interviewees, this is the classic moment when a quid pro quo is thought to exist--and it's an occupational hazard if you are a scientist or other type of technical expert, since your specialty means you will likely spend even more time just to explain what you are trying to describe and comment on. So take it from science journalist Carl Zimmer, who notes in this interivew, "It does surprise some scientists that there’s not necessarily a correlation between the time we spend in researching a book or article and the amount they are mentioned, but there’s no quid pro quo." 
  • "Is it just a matter of being nicer to the reporter?" I just got this question in a workshop when we were discussing whether reporters would show sources their stories in advance of publication. One participant said that he often can "talk them into it," and I cautioned the group that they shouldn't expect that. It's not only rare but usually against the rules for the reporter--and thus, something you should not request. That's when the idea of being nicer came up, perhaps a quid pro quo in the sense that you're trading pleasantry for access to an early look. (And for the record, gifts don't help, either.) For more on this, see my post on Why you can't check your quotes like the campaigns do, and note that, since it was written, numerous news organizations that were making exceptions to this rule have stopped the practice. Then change your approach: Before the interview ends, ask the reporter, "Shall we review what I just said?", one of my 12 questions you get to ask reporters, instead of asking to see the finished piece.
  • "How can I interact with reporters and control the outcome?" This question also came up in a recent workshop. Let me quote an historic text to keep in mind: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..." It's a basic tenet of our democracy in the United States that you can't control the press. If you're a source looking for ways to trade clever interaction with reporters for control, you will soon learn why public relations professionals refer to media coverage as "earned coverage." If you want to control things, buy some advertising (and even that has rules and limitations). 
  • "Reporters represent 10 percent of my calls, and they take up 80 percent of my time." Somewhere in this complaint from a wonderful source, a policy expert to whom I used to send reporters, is a wish for a quid pro quo of a different sort: I'll give you my time if you don't take too much of it. He was less concerned with how many times he got mentioned, in part because he was the only person with the data in question, and more concerned with juggling tasks. He did the right thing pointing it out to me, a communications pro who could then come up with solutions like conference calls with several reporters at once (today, think Google+ Hangouts or 10-person Skype sessions) to keep access for reporters both open and manageable for the expert. If you're a source, it's a smart idea to find your communications pro and start a discussion on how to make the tradeoffs easier for you.
Need a media training for yourself or a group, or a workshop on how to work more effectively with reporters? Email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz.

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