Using the Press to Your Advantage
Journalists can help corporate America achieve its goals when companies understand how to use them
P> In the third part of this three-part series, we examine how corporate America can affect their press coverage. By working with the press and spreading the word of the importance of your industry, people in and out of your community can learn about what's going on.
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 them.
If you become a "source" for a reporter, you need to know that good journalists protect their sources at all costs. I rarely tell someone where I heard a story. But if you feed a reporter a controversial or important story and tell him to hush up about where he heard it, probably the only person who can get your name out of him is his editor. And often times, out of respect for the reporter, the editor doesn't ask. The best reporters have the best sources. It's what gives us a competitive edge. Even courts have a hard time getting reporters to divulge sources.
Don't Lie To Reporters
You don't have to tell a reporter everything, but don't lie because reporters have great memories. Here's why:
If I interview somebody or go to a press conference, I usually use a tape recorder. I listen to the presentation or engage the subject in a conversation, go back to my office and transcribe the tape. Then I read through the transcript and mark it up with notes and start writing the story, referring constantly to the transcript. After my first draft, I read through the transcript of the interview once more to see if I missed anything important.
The next step is to read the article, touch it up and check facts. After that, I'll read it two or three times for clarity and rhythm and make sure everything is okay. Then it's handed to an editor (or editors) who reads it two or three times, asking for clarification on issues. The story is typeset. I read the final version to make sure the editor hasn't put a wrong slant on things, and then it's published.
In all, I have poured over the words of the person interviewed eight to 10 times. I'm closer to those words than the person who spoke them. There is an absolute bond between me and the person interviewed. That person may not know it, but I sure do.
If six months or a year pass and I hear that person speak or answer questions once again, and what he says doesn't fit with his earlier comments, a flag goes up. This is a very common occurrence when dealing with politicians or presidential appointees running huge government organizations.
Reporters have very good memories, and if you're in the rare position where you are quoted regularly in the press, you better be honest. Reporters don't like people who lie.
In its most basic form, a reporter's job is to take the spoken word and write it down. The spoken word written down is very different from the written word written down. Most people struggle mightily when they're writing because they're constantly asking if they really mean what they're writing. "This statement is a little strong... maybe I should tone it down. I don't want to offend anybody."
But when people speak, this is not an issue. The spoken word is effervescent and disappears immediately, except when it's written down by a journalist.
So when you're interviewed by a reporter, be conscious of what you're saying. A reporter can see your words written on paper as you're saying them. He knows when he hears a wonderful quote.
Don't Take Any News Story for Granted
Virtually everything you see on television or read in the newspaper took a great deal of work to get it there. Getting the news requires an activist effort. If there weren't a few brave reporters in Sarajevo, how would we ever know the details of the war going on there? Very little flows to a reporter -- particularly business reporters and those covering government. Reporters must go out and work like mad to get stories.
Public relations is an important job in any organization, and a good PR person is a rarity. Hire someone with experience working in the media, preferably the print media. They know how to write and understand deadlines. Don't hire a kid fresh out of college. They have an awful urge to pester reporters and editors to cover stories, and will turn reporters off to stories more often than they'll turn them on.
It's important for the person dealing with the media to recognize a news story. A PR person who has five to 10 years of deadline experience will be one of your greatest assets. Not only can they deal with the press, which can be touchy, but they can polish writing produced by people who don't write for a living.
A bad PR person will hurt you more than help you, and you may never know it. Their enthusiasm to make you look good can backfire. I have seen numerous cases where PR people, or press secretaries without experience in the media, put words in their boss' mouth, or work so hard at presenting a positive image, trying to take credit for things, that it makes the person look like a power-hungry, publicity-starved idiot. A good PR person will develop relationships with important reporters, which is the best way to get a fair shake in the press.
Put out press releases every once in a while, and give your list a wide circulation. Press releases are important, and we use them. Every one of them is read. It's impossible for us to know everything that is going on, and we depend on you to tell us. So tell us. There is a lot of good information in press releases -- things that we don't know. And that is what we report.
Don't be disappointed with a small press turnout at your press event. That is the norm, and reporters don't think anything of it. I only go to a few press conferences a year where there are large showings. Most of the events I attend in the National Press Club or elsewhere attract only five or six journalists, and often times only two or three. Schedule a press conference only if you have something to say.
A Good Job for Your Son or Daughter
There are thousands of entry-level jobs that open up in the media every year. They don't pay great, but they get people on the first rung of the career ladder. Unfortunately, too many young people nowadays think they deserve to be on the sixth or seventh rung of the ladder and refuse to work for $20,000 or less fresh out of school. The best students see this wage and decide not to go into journalism. But they are missing an incredible opportunity. As a young journalist, I was amazed by the fact that most every door on the planet is open to you, all you have to do is invite yourself in. No one else has that access -- the front-row seats that are saved; the back-stage passes; the first-hand account of history being made. There are few careers as rewarding, and I know lots of people who were low-paid, overworked journalists who moved into great jobs in a variety of organizations -- including the mainstream press -- and are doing extremely well due to the training they received and the understanding they have of a baffling diversity of subjects.
Richard McCormack is 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 can be reached by phone at (703) 705-2664, or by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org).