GRAND RAPIDS — Behind every good news story stands the work of an enterprising reporter and a fastidious team of editors. Behind that work, frequently, stands a press release.
In an era known as the Information Age, the currency traded between the news media and the companies and organizations they report on is often collected, considered, packaged and presented by the hands and minds of public relations professionals. To understand how their work ends up in headlines in the morning paper and lead stories on the evening news, it’s important to understand the give-and-take relationship between the media and the public relations community. Despite working together daily, that relationship is not exactly a friendship. Both recognize each other’s importance, but each serves a different purpose.
“We are aware that virtually every story idea that is presented to us comes with some type of angle or agenda from the (company or PR firm),” said Timothy Dye, news director for WXMI FOX 17. “We believe it is our responsibility to recognize that position and still attempt to present the story in a fair and thorough fashion.”
Mary Ann Sabo, a former Grand Rapids Press reporter who now has her own public relations firm, summed up the working relationship well.
“My job — the agenda that I had — was to tell a story that I thought would be of interest to my readers in the business community,” she said. “The PR folks have their agenda, and they want to promote their company, or promote the product, or whatever slice it is. And while they want to help me get the news out, they certainly come at it from a much more subjective angle.”
Sabo said that public relations professionals are often the buffer between reporters and company executives, balancing the demands of the objective press with the subjective messages of the client.
In talking to numerous public relations professionals, the word “trust” came up frequently. The PR community knows that gaining the trust of reporters and editors is the key to serving their clients.
“You really have to know your audience, the kind of information they need and the proper approach to earn even a few seconds from a journalist,” said Clare Wade, principal of Clare Wade Communications. “They are bombarded with information at every turn. Earning a journalist’s trust over time means your e-mail or call has a much better chance of getting through for consideration. That’s golden.”
But gaining that trust certainly doesn’t mean that a message goes straight from the press release to the page or to the air. For example, when a public relations firm pitches a story to Newsradio WOOD 1300, the station’s news director, Rich Jones, knows that story is framed in a way that benefits the firm’s client.
“That’s their job, and our job is to present it to our audience in a way that benefits the audience,” he said. “The two sometimes don’t see eye-to-eye, and the two sometimes do see eye-to-eye.”
More often, Jones said, a PR pitch raises an idea about a larger story, or an “issue-related topic.”
“What I mean by that is, if, say for example that a specific health organization is pitching a story on a particular new piece of equipment that they have, we may not do the story on that piece of equipment, but it could raise the issue of whether the disease that’s being treated is an emerging threat and whether it impacts our audience,” he said.
Dye’s process is similar at FOX 17. If an assignment editor’s “news meter” finds something noteworthy in a press release or a story pitch from a public relations firm, the subject is taken up in the day’s editorial meeting.
“If the story is prompted by a press release, then we typically use the information provided in it to get a thumbnail sketch of the subject, and to seek out a contact name with whom we can get more information,” said Dye. “The information we seek may — and likely will — transcend the information normally contained in the release. Our staff is looking at the story as it relates to the viewers in the area, and we try to address the questions those viewers would have regarding the subject.”
Even if the story doesn’t make the news page or the broadcast in the format it was originally pitched, the company may still get positive press out of it.
“We make it clear to organizations or PR firms that are pitching something to us that maybe only 20 percent of what they’re pitching to us gets used, but it’s still 20 percent toward their client that will probably benefit them,” said Jones.
When the news-gathering process goes the other way, public relations professionals become the gatekeepers of their organization’s information. To gain access to the CEOs, presidents, executive directors and politicians quoted each week in this publication, Business Journal reporters often have to work through companies’ PR executives.
After years of going through those channels as a reporter, Sabo used that experience to shape her public relations firm’s methods.
“I found that the better PR people were those who understood what I needed, understood my deadlines, got where my audience was coming from, and would say, ‘You need to talk to so-and-so,’ and step back,” Sabo said. “My thought is, ‘Give ’em a source and step back.’ I looked at a number of people who did that well and chose them as my role models.”
Of course, that is not how all PR professionals operate. Fox 17’s Dye said that communicating through spokespeople and gatekeepers can sometimes be cumbersome.
“We find it does diminish the spontaneity of interviews, and also diminishes the actual flow of information, as PR staffs seem reluctant to release information without carefully considering its ramifications first,” he said.
Sabo said she also encountered that reluctance, and found it frustrating.
“I’ve worked with other PR people who are more … controlling,” she said after carefully considering her words. “They want to manage the whole process, and they’d talk for their CEO or whoever the person was. I wanted to get the best possible source. And more often than not, the best possible source was someone who was directing the process, and not the PR person.”
Now that she is in that position, she tries to put on her “journalist hat” when dealing with reporters. She has found that doing so allows her to be seen as more of a resource, not simply a gatekeeper or spokesperson.
“I like to see myself as kind of an information match-maker,” she said. “You’ve got stories you need, and you come to me. Often times I will give you someone who’s not one of my clients, but it’s someone who fits in, because I know that’s what you’re looking for. I think I have the reputation that I’ll find you the best resource I can, whether it’s my client or not.”