As a public relations professional, I’ve learned that successful campaigns often turn on the type of relationship I’m able to build with reporters.
Reporters are the gatekeepers of most advocacy campaigns. You need to grab and hold their interest in order to gain the coverage that gets your message across in newspapers, television, radio and online sites. And you need to build a level of trust so that journalists believe what you’re saying and consider your story pitch worth their time.
Building a successful relationship with a journalist requires the same kind of care, dedication and respect that you need to apply to any relationship.
As someone who was a reporter and now works as a media consultant, I’ve been on both sides of the connection. I’ve developed successful relationships from both perspectives – but I’ve also seen reporters and media professionals fall into traps that sour associations and hurt their abilities to get their jobs done.
Here are a few tips to start things off right:
1. Relationships with reporters should be mutually beneficial.
At its base, the reporter-source relationship is supposed to benefit both parties. I'm trying to raise awareness about an issue important to my client. The reporter is trying to get a good story while upholding high ethical standards.
Structure your engagements with reporters around this fact by making sure you respect their time and their job – which is to report objectively and comprehensively – even when it means that they don’t take your pitch at face value.
2. Build trust.
When I was a reporter, I informally categorized each of my regular sources based on how trustworthy they were.
It takes time to win reporters’ trust – and that trust can be broken in an instant.
It’s OK to aggressively advocate for your point of view, but never lie to or mislead a reporter.
This doesn’t just apply to the facts of a story. It also means that you should always uphold any agreements you’ve made – for instance, to give a specific journalist the exclusive first dibs to a story.
And because reporters are each angling for the scoop, never divulge confidential information you receive from one reporter to a competitor.
3. Don’t waste reporters’ time.
Journalists are busy people in a high-pressure profession, often facing multiple deadlines and serious lack of resources.
Before trying to elicit coverage, do your research. Make sure that the reporters you’re targeting cover the topics in which you’re interested in attracting coverage. Make sure they cover the right geographical area.
If I’m working for a client advocating passage of an ordinance in Philadelphia City Council, I talk to the Inquirer’s political team – and not someone on the arts and culture beat.
Think about the type of story you’re pitching. Is this a topic involving lots of numbers that works better with a print reporter or an image-heavy story that’s perfect for television?
Press conferences tend to be made for television, while in-depth stories that require deeper reporting and longer interviews to pull off are perfect for features reporters at larger newspapers or magazines.
Getting these basics right may sound simple, but they’re critical to developing a reputation that you’re someone worth listening to.
4. Be responsive.
At the same time, try to be available as possible to reporters whenever you can.
Understand that an unending stream of myriad issues and people are competing for their time. You can cut through that clutter by providing them with clear and concise information and responding in a timely fashion to any reporter’s inquiries.
I give my cell phone number out to every reporter I regularly deal with, and I respond as quickly as possible to any calls, emails or texts – even when I’m out of the office or traveling.
5. Hold reporters accountable while respecting the role they play.
Tough exchanges with journalists are sometimes inevitable in high-pressure, high-profile situations – particularly in the midst of a crisis.
When faced with a difficult situation or story, no one expects you to be a pushover. Advocate strongly for your position – and don’t give any ground that you don’t have to.
At the same time, understand that reporters asking tough questions are only doing their jobs.
You should expect reporters to be challenging – but also fair.
When they’re not, you should call them on it.
6. Don’t wait until you need something to call.
The best reporter-source relationships move beyond the purely transactional.
It’s always a good idea to help reporters out on stories they’re working on – even if it doesn’t directly help a client or cause.
For the savvy media professional, reporters provide context and background to important events.
And media strategists with their ears to the ground often have access to information that reporters are hunting for.
I try to keep in regular contact with reporters on key beats and have helped journalists out behind the scenes on countless stories.
This approach helps build trust and makes it more likely that they’ll take you seriously when covering an issue you have a direct interest in.
Anthony Campisi is an Associate Director in Ceisler Media’s Philadelphia Office.