By Matthew Sheahan
No doubt every PR practitioner has had an experience where a journalist makes a negative comment or moves a conversation in a direction that it doesn’t have to take. Someone sees an opportunity to say a sarcastic comment and takes it. I spent many years working in journalism and I know I was short with PR representatives at times.
In these instances, it could be easy to lose your cool and cut back with a cutting retort, but don’t. Even if you think you have an unbeatable comeback, it’s never advisable to send that email or bark back over the phone (write it down for posterity or as proof of your own wit). Like the mutually-assured-destruction doctrine that staves off nuclear war, a PR game of one-upmanship is one you lose just by entering.
In the military, there’s an emphasis on maintaining your bearing – meaning your disciplined attitude and posture, at all times – especially when things go wrong. There’s a reason for that. If your rifle jams in the middle of a firefight, you don’t have seconds to spare cursing or complaining. Someone that can demonstrate an unflappable temperament in the face of adversity can help others keep their cool also.
The same is true in public relations. Everyone needs to vent sometimes, and journalists are no exception. We still need to build good relationships with them. Even if one client does not want to speak to them again, we might have others that still want to appear in their publication.
Years ago, when I was working as a journalist, I had lunch with a partner in a private equity firm at his office in New York. I thought we were going to do a straight Q&A interview and that I would have a cool feature for our publication’s next issue. I brought along some copies of our latest issues, had my micro-cassette recorder with me and was ready to go. The partner had other ideas though. He looked over the magazine issues I brought and took exception to a profile of a partner of a rival PE firm. He called it a “puff piece” and belittled my publication and our coverage of his market. He also had some kind of relationship with a rival publication with regular column space on their pages. I went back to the office without my interview.
I wanted to tell this guy to take a long walk off of a short pier. How could he call something I had written a “puff piece”?
Although I didn’t agree with his criticisms, there was no need to argue the point. I finished my lunch and my conversation with him and continued to try to cultivate him as a source. I kept my calls and emails polite and not too frequent, and would say hello when we ran into each other at industry events. Eventually he came around and became one of the best sources I had for that beat.
Journalists may find liaising with PR representatives tedious when it would be easier to call a source directly. As long as we continue to keep our cool and make our case professionally, most journalists will see the value in what we do. It won’t happen overnight, but with professionalism and persistence, things will pay off.