Meet the Business Press
Journalists help companies spread the word about new products and monumental corporate changes -- Here's how to use them to your advantage
P> Business journalists, perhaps more than any other breed of journalists, are bombarded daily with questions from readers, public relations agencies and executives. Those questions mostly boil down to, "How do I get covered in your publication?" This is a legitimate question, and journalists all too often ignore or even refuse to answer. But journalists are only partly to blame, as the vast majority of callers have not the slightest idea how journalists work or what a publication considers a good story. Many honestly believe that buying advertising also buys editorial coverage -- and they say as much to editors, thereby eliminating the possibility of any coverage except, perhaps, the most negative kind. So we offer the following remarks, which WT endorses, to help you deal more effectively with the business press. The author is Richard McCormack, editor and publisher of Manufacturing News, based in Annandale, Va. He has been a reporter covering science and technology from Washington, D.C., for the past 13 years. He's a trained, experienced journalist -- a real pro. His comments are directed to the manufacturing industry, but they apply equally well to information technology and services.
You can have far greater impact on what appears in newspapers and trade press than you probably realize. It may not be part of your mission statement or official job duties, but you can work with the press to effectively spread the word.
The press can make a difference in helping you accomplish your goals. It also can do the exact opposite and inflict a painful bite. You have to know how to work with the press.
The press is not a monolith or behemoth run from New York City or Washington, D.C. It is made up of individuals competing against each other to find exciting, interesting stories and writing them under the constant pressure of a deadline.
A word of advice: Get to know a journalist covering your industry or your organization for the local paper or television station or from one of the important trade journals. Better yet, get to know the editor or publisher. You can't do this over the phone. A lunch once a year and then an occasional conversation on the phone is all it takes.
Having a relationship with a member of the press can be a rewarding experience, especially when you see that it has an impact on what is written and how topics important to you are presented.
When inviting a reporter or the editor of your local paper out to lunch or into your shop, you don't have to be selling anything. Just get to know them. Tell them what's going on. If you feed them some interesting morsels of information, they'll be back. That's what sustains us. We're constantly looking for people who have a fresh, honest perspective on the issues we're covering.
Open Up Your Shop
You may think the inside of a manufacturing facility is a common place for people to go every day because that's where you work, but it isn't. Reporters rarely get to see the hardware, technology and people that go into producing products and creating the wealth that supports such institutions as the press. Reporters trained in liberal studies have little notion of how science is converted into technology and products appear on store shelves.
If you're a manufacturer, you may intricately understand your processes and could glean some bit of proprietary knowledge from touring the shop floor of a competitor. But a reporter has little basis to make such judgments and unless told about the differences or advantages of one process over another, couldn't possibly share the information in a meaningful way with one of your competitors. In other words, companies need to show off a little bit.
On Being A Reporter
Journalism is a profession for younger people. The best reporters are in their late 20s to late 30s. They bring a fresh perspective to stories that have been abandoned by older journalists who have covered them before and no longer have the interest or energy to go back and cover them again.
The constant deadline wears people down. Eventually, reporters become editors, analysts, public relations professionals, authors or vice presidents of the United States. Journalism is great training for almost any job because there are few people in any organization capable of quickly writing clean sentences.
Only the best reporters survive into their prime reporting years because the cardinal rule in the profession is you can't make mistakes. Receiving hate calls from the people you write about is no fun, and it forces you to be meticulous about making sure things are right. If your editor or publisher receives the hate calls, it's even worse.
Editors want reporters who aren't able to sleep at night because they didn't check on tiny facts earlier that day. Fact checking is a big part of our job. It wears you down, but it must be done. (Wealthy publications such as Business Week and Forbes hire people to check every fact in every story. If the reporter gets them wrong, he or she is fired.)
Any type of gaff -- from the misspelling of a person's name to a blatant misquote or mischaracterization -- doesn't go over in a newsroom. Editors get angered. Reporters get branded. The paper gets tarnished and no one can trust what they read.
Reporters who don't quite hear things as they are presented, or who can't accurately write someone else's perspective, don't last long. (Imagine going to a baseball game and then reading an incorrect account of it in the next day's paper.) Getting things wrong is the second quickest way to end a reporter's career. The first is missing deadlines.
If you're dealing with a reporter who has worked for a daily or weekly for at least five years or who is in his or her 30s and if you like what they write, you can be pretty sure that you're dealing with a pro.
Unfortunately, every reporter must learn the profession by making mistakes. Since there are no longer apprenticeship programs for reporters, it means they have to make mistakes for their college paper or the small local newspaper that pays them a beginning salary of $14,000. If you have such a reporter covering your organization, let them know when they make mistakes. Don't let ugly mistakes slide, otherwise the reporter will keep making them.
Like any profession, the best journalists make it look easy, but it is not a simple skill. Few people possess the attributes that make a good reporter: a natural curiosity; an innate understanding of a lot of different topics, places and history; the ability to ask tough, personal questions; the ability to interact with important people; the knack for recognizing news stories when they come up in unexpected places; having a huge amount of initiative, energy and resourcefulness; and finally, having the ability to write clearly, concisely and quickly.
People who possess all these skills are in short supply.
Some people are excellent writers but can't recognize a news story. Others are great at uncovering news stories but don't know how to write them. (The latter is preferred.) Others don't know how to ask the important questions. You can teach someone how to write, but you can't teach them these other intangible traits.
All that said, there are some really bad journalists out there who have made it through this system. Stay away from them if you can. But if you can't avoid them because they cover you or your organization, then call their editor and complain.
McCormack can be reached by phone at (703) 705-2664, or by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).