If you’re on any of the lists I’m on, chances are you get an invitation every couple of months to some public relations event where the featured speaker is actually a panel of reporters and editors. The premise of the event is usually for the public relations professionals in the room to get some tough love from journalists so they can do better at their jobs.
This idea has tremendous potential, but in the time I’ve spent in both the news and public relations business, I can’t remember anyone hosting an event where a group of journalists sat in the audience so that a panel of public relations pros could bash them, but that’s beside the point.
Rather, the focus here is on the public relations industry’s tradition of hosting these kinds of events and how unfortunately predictable they can be. I had written about the “dreaded media luncheon” years ago and continue to contend that PR people endure this sort of thing mostly because they want to ingratiate themselves with the journalists in the room. My main reason for believing this is if you are already in PR, you have countless opportunities in your day to talk to reporters and learn first-hand what reporters want and need from us.
If you’ve never been to one of these events, here’s what to expect:
- The majority in the audience will be public relations pros with five years’ experience or less, with most having never stepped foot in an actual news room, and not that many who actually consume substantive news content for pleasure. Many in the audience typically view the media panel at the front of the room as a curiosity.
- Some PR professionals only attend to use the post-remarks period to walk up to individual reporters to pitch stories or commence relationships to serve as the foundation for pitching future stories. These attendees often don’t listen to a word during the formal discussion. You can spot them with their heads pointed down toward their smart phones.
- The reporters who participate usually do so because they really want to impart words of wisdom on the PR profession, or they may just be flattered for the invitation to speak, or they know their news organizations could downsize any day and this is a good way to network if a quick transition into public relations is necessary.
Once the discussion starts, you may well hear journalists say:
- “You people in public relations don’t know our beats, our deadlines and you don’t even read our content or study our work before you email, text, tweet, and on rare occasions call.”
- “We really don’t need you for story ideas, we just need the subject matter experts you provide.”
- “Don’t call me in the morning, evening on weekends, or during the work day when I am on deadline.”
- “That said, you need to make sure you’re there when I call in the morning, evening, on weekends or during the work day.”
- “Make sure your press releases are newsworthy, have reliable information, and are accurate.”
Do the journalists have a point? In a sense they do, but in a larger sense, there is much about public relations they don’t understand and that can make some of what they say sound very one-dimensional and sometimes misguided.
Reporters are too often right when it’s obvious to them some PR person doesn’t even know what the reporter covers. This has as much to do with the PR industry’s pattern of assigning recent college graduates to media relations duties with little training.
But the one thing many of these reporters underestimate is how much they rely already on public relations professionals, not only as direct sources for information, but even indirectly in story formation. The casual conversations we have with reporters, our pitches, and many of the things we do behind the scenes on our end (i.e. spokesperson training and coaching) usually work to give the reporter a better product in ways they don’t even see.
I would never discourage anyone from attending a media panel luncheon, but if you go, take what you hear with a grain of salt.
The one thing too many public relations practitioners check at the door is the understanding that if reporters base their perceptions of PR only on their interactions with us, they’re not getting the full story. We can’t lose sight that many journalists assume public relations exists to serve the media and nothing more. This means some media panelists likely only know a fraction of what we do and how our profession functions.
The trick is to listen to everything that’s said with a critical ear and not to accept everything discussed on face value.
If you’d like to discuss this, just let me know.