Journalists and PR Professionals — Building Symbiotic Relationships

For a PR professional, hearing from the top reporters who frame our worldview feels the way it might for a less nerdy person to sit courtside at a Warriors game — thrilling. Or so it felt the other night when I sat in front of the Wall Street Journal’s Scott Austin, Liam Denning and Rolfe Winkler at a Gorkana Group event.

Journalism PR

Image source: Megan ODonnell

Austin, Denning and Winkler shared their perspectives on the nuanced relationship between journalists and PR professionals — a relationship that the latter group tends to approach more enthusiastically than the former. It was clear from each man’s comments, however, that it’s one which can become quite symbiotic.

The best way to build this type of relationship, the reporters agreed, is to set yourself and your client apart by being a genuine source of useful information, even (or, perhaps, especially) when it has nothing to do with you. “We’re in the business of relationships,” Austin explained. “Information is currency.” He referenced Dave Goldberg as an example of an executive who was always willing to add his insight to conversations, without expecting that SurveyMonkey receive coverage for his having done so.

Winkler had some wisdom for PR people trying to balance the requirements of the job, for instance, preventing damaging comments from getting published while competing for the attention of journalists. “Set good ground rules,” he advised. “Then have [your executive] go off script. It’s such a breath of fresh air when that happens, and the relationship builds from there.”

Denning agreed, adding that he’s unlikely to even take notes if the information is clearly scripted. “It’s a waste of everyone’s time,” he said. “You have to trust that if we agree information is on background, I won’t publish. It’s a credibility building exercise on both sides.”

Many executives have information that journalists find useful, whether it’s about industry trends, developments or even rumors. Many who are currently at small startups, for example, have worked at larger companies. This, Denning suggested, can be a great way to catch a reporter’s attention. “They’re not there anymore, so they’re free to talk about it on background. It’s a good way to build relationships. That’s the type of thing a reporter remembers when deciding whether or not to cover your funding news.”

Also interesting was the way Austin, Denning and Winkler described the industry’s evolution. Signs are everywhere — the WSJ renamed the “Marketplace” section of its paper to “Business and Tech” in February this year, a reminder that business and technology are no longer extractable from one another. Denning explained that the Business and Tech section is where the advertising money is. That’s nontrivial in an age when journalism is looking to redefine itself and its funding sources or perish. Technology isn’t just driving modern business; it’s a powerful force behind journalism, too.

So, for now, tech and journalism — PR people and journalists — are necessarily intertwined. Possibly more so than ever before. That’s not just in our interest, it’s in the journalists’ interests, too. We just have to remember where we get our true power — useful information — and get really good at knowing how and when to share it.

Featured image by Samuel Chow via Flickr.