“Want to establish good relationships with journalists?” said the post on my LinkedIn feed recently. “Try sending them a free branded t-shirt.”
I was a journalist for 25 years, and I had a number of good relationships with people working in PR and comms. Not one of them ever sent me a branded t-shirt.
So, if free leisurewear is out of the question, what does work? How do you establish good working relationships with journalists?
1. Give them what they need
At its heart, the relationship between journalists and press officers is transactional. If journalists ask for information, give them that information as quickly as you can. If they want to speak to someone, arrange for a spokesperson to call them back as quickly as possible. Be efficient and effective, and journalists will love you for it.
Even better, they will come back to you again and again. When I was an education journalist, my colleagues and I gave disproportionate airtime to one of the smaller teaching unions, because we knew that its general secretary would reliably pick up the phone and give a good, quotable comment on almost any story.
2. Let them know you’re there
Agenda was brought in by the Society of Radiographers (SoR) to help with press coverage in the ballot for and build-up to their strike in July 2023. One of the first things we did was to contact health journalists and let them know who we were and what we were doing.
And, whenever a news story arose that was relevant to radiography or the health workforce, we would send out an immediate comment from SoR to journalists. Providing something useful – such as relevant facts, figures, images, case studies or a spokesperson – is the best way to remind journalists who you are and what you do.
3. Don’t overcommunicate (or undercommunicate)
It’s rare, but some press officers will undercommunicate to the point of vanishing after being asked for a comment. It ought to go without saying: don’t do this. It isn’t conducive to building a trusting relationship. Besides, busy journalists will stop chasing you and go elsewhere.
A much more common error, however, is overcommunication. This is when really, really enthusiastic press officers are really, really keen to tell the journalist how hard they’re working to get them what they need. The upshot is a phone call roughly every 15 minutes, telling the journalist that they’ve identified the right person to comment, that they’ve left them a voicemail message, that they’re still waiting for that person to return their call – and so, apparently endlessly, on.
Remember: the journalist has other work to be getting on with. Provide a rough timeframe for coming back to them, and then don’t contact them until you have something tangible to deliver.
4. Don’t overpromise
If you can’t give journalists what they’re asking for, that’s okay. They’ll survive. Similarly, if they call at 10am, asking to speak to someone as soon as possible, and you’re not able to provide a relevant spokesperson until mid-afternoon, they’ll adjust.
Don’t, however, promise you’ll find a spokesperson if you’re not yet sure whether or not the relevant person is free. The journalist will take your promise at face value, and will leave space for a late-breaking comment. If that comment doesn’t materialise, then they’ll be left scrabbling around at the last minute for something to fill the space – cursing your name as they do so, and mentally deleting you from their list of preferred contacts.
5. Be wary of ‘No comment’
You may assume that “No comment” simply means, “I am choosing not to become involved in this story.” That assumption is incorrect.
No comment can, in fact, become a comment in and of itself: “X organisation was unwilling to comment.” If the story reflects in any way badly on you or your organisation, then a no-comment comment at the end of the story becomes pretty damning in itself.
Imagine, for example, that your organisation has been accused of fraud. The entire story will detail these allegations – possibly alongside comments from people who have been adversely affected by the fraud – at the end of which are the words: “The organisation was unwilling to comment.” At best, this sounds defensive; at worst, it could be read as an admission of guilt.
It’s also worth remembering that anything that accompanies the statement “No comment” is fair game. So if you say, “This is nothing but a mud-slinging exercise and I’m not prepared to comment,” the entire statement will be quoted. Or possibly just the first half – so your “No comment" becomes “This is nothing but a mud-slinging exercise.”
6. Understand how to write a comment
It’s far better to provide a response of some sort, however limited. When putting together a comment, however, it’s worth remembering that the journalist is not obliged to use the entire statement, from start to finish. They will use the part that best suits them/their story/their word count.
Every sentence or clause of your comment therefore has to stand alone. Make sure that nothing can be taken out of context or misused in the story. Book reviews are the classic here: “This novel is stunningly atmospheric, but is entirely lacking in plot and character,” will end up quoted as “Stunningly atmospheric”.
Equally, you may send a carefully crafted official comment to a journalist, who will then call you up for clarification. It’s entirely plausible here that nothing at all from your carefully crafted, officially signed-off comment will make it into print – the only part quoted will be your clarification on the phone. (If you’re speaking off the record, then make sure that you establish this before saying anything.)
7. What does ‘off the record’ actually mean?
"Off the record" is one of those media phrases that everyone knows, thanks to Hollywood depictions of journalism, in which every other conversation is off the record. In reality, it very rarely crops up: of all the times that I’ve used it, nine times out of 10 were as a way of asking for gossip utterly unrelated to the story I was writing.
But "off the record" is also an unhelpfully vague phrase, which seems to promise everything, while actually telling you very little. If a journalist suggests that you speak to them off the record, then the first thing you should do – before saying anything – is to clarify what that means.
If they say it’s “for background”, that means that they’re not going to use what you tell them in the story – it's merely to provide context. If, for example, you’re a headteacher, and a story breaks about a headteacher in a neighbouring school who had a stress-related meltdown in public, a journalist might call you up for an off-the-record chat about the stresses involved in the job. (Do not, however, assume that this means it’s safe for you to talk about the headteacher in question without being quoted. It does not.)
If, however, the journalist were to call you up for an off-the-record conversation specifically about scandals which have emerged about the headteacher, then the first thing you should do is to clarify what this means. Will your comments be used, but attributed to “a source”? Will they be presented to the headteacher in question for rebuttal? Do not give any information that you think might identify you if you want anonymity, without a full understanding of how it will be used, and whether it will appear in print.
And never assume that a conversation is off the record unless it has been explicitly agreed with the journalist beforehand.
8. Respect deadlines
You may think that there’s no such thing as a hard deadline in the era of online news. You may know that this particular publication doesn’t go to press for several more hours – or even days.
There are any number of factors that affect the deadline given to an online story, from a desire to have the story live before any competitors through to the need to catch a particular audience at a particular time. (If you want to put a story in front of teachers, for example, it’s always good to publish it at 4pm – they tend to check their phones at the end of the school day.)
And, while you may know that a certain publication goes to press on, say, a Wednesday evening, that does not mean that you have until 5pm on Wednesday to provide your comment. While the entire magazine may be put to bed on a Wednesday, pages will be finished and sent to the printers at different points in the week. It’s entirely possible that, by Wednesday morning, all but the front cover and the first few news pages will have been sent to the printers already.
So take the journalist’s word for it, and respect the deadline they give you.
9. Be open and honest (or at least appear to be)
Agenda recently delivered a crisis -comms training session to the charity Alzheimer’s Research UK. We discussed with them what the organisation would do if a potentially damaging story had broken and they were being asked to comment.
We all agreed the key message was: don’t be defensive. Defensiveness looks like you have something to hide. Even if you have no intention of telling journalists very much at all, you need to give the impression of being open and honest. “We’re very concerned about the situation and will be launching an investigation” is a good response; “We’ve done nothing wrong – you’re all just out to get us” is not.
10. Understand the value of a good story
A journalist’s job is to find stories. The best contacts are the ones who bring you stories – or tip-offs that lead to stories. These are the contacts who can call in the favours later on.
As we discussed with Alzheimer’s Research UK, this applies equally during a crisis. If a damaging story breaks in one newspaper, journalists from other newspapers will be under pressure from their news editors to move the story on – to find a new story to rival the original one.
The best way to deal with this is to offer the journalist an alternative story. If, for example, you are conducting a crisis investigation, consider promising the journalist exclusive access to the investigation report before it’s published. That promise of an exclusive story may well be enough to placate the news editor looking to move the story on. And the goodwill generated by the exclusive may be useful in the long term.
11. Know your target audience
While every organisation would love to be quoted (positively) in a national newspaper or on the Today programme, this is not always possible – nor, in fact, desirable. Different stories appeal to different audiences, and the key to successful coverage is to know how to find the right home for any given story.
Agenda has been working with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), which provides adult-education courses, often working in partnership with local authorities. We’ve therefore secured coverage for them in the Local Government Chronicle, FE Week and FE News – all of which will be read by the people who matter to the organisation.
12. Avoid these at all costs
The following are guaranteed to get any journalist’s back up:
Telling them something “isn’t a story”. You can ask for more details and consider ways to mitigate any risk to you or your organisation, but journalists won’t thank you for telling them how to do their job.
Treating the journalist as the enemy. They are not Woodward and Bernstein, and you are not Richard Nixon.
Using corporate speak. No relationship was ever forged over aligned priorities.
Declining the opportunity on this occasion. The journalist is not offering you an opportunity when they come to you for comment: they’re asking you for a favour. It’s fine to say no, but don’t pretend they’re the ones doing you a good turn.
A relationship with a journalist is just like any other relationship, in that it’s built on openness, communication and mutual respect. If a journalist asks for a comment or a piece of information, be honest about what you can provide and when – and then provide it.
Make yourself indispensable – by providing tip-offs and stories, or by being readily available for comment. Once you’re indispensable, you can start asking for favours.
Be mindful of what you say - “no comment” might seem sensible if the timeline is short or the topic is complicated, but readers can jump to the wrong conclusion. “Off the record” might not guarantee you anonymity. And a carefully crafted yet complicated statement which is clarified in a phone call can result in the clarification being printed instead.