How PR Pros Should Engage Reporters

Dennis McCafferty
McCafferty: “It would be a huge mistake to assume that those in editorial are resorting to alternatives to phone/in-person interviews because they’re lazy. They’re simply maximizing the value of the tech tools available.”

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In my early years of journalism, I once worked for an editor who wanted to get rid of every chair in the office. Why? Because, in doing so, he’d force his reporters to go out and conduct in-person interviews.

He never actually removed the chairs. But his point was well-taken: If you have the time, you’ll get much more out of an in-person interview than you ever could on the phone.

But that was the late 1980s. This is the 21st Century. The ‘rules’ have changed.

Like me, Gil Rudawsky is a former reporter/editor with two decades of experience. He now heads the crisis communication/issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. In a recent article for Ragan’s PR Daily, he delivered a fair but honest critique of today’s generation of journalists. Forget face-to-face meetings, Rudawsky wrote. Media professionals today won’t even pick up the phone to interview someone. After all, it’s all about finding sources on Twitter and getting quotes via email or text, right?

Point well taken. The highly respected Rudawsky positions himself as “old school” here, to the point of refusing to send prepared statements unless the reporter calls him first. Respectfully, from my perspective, that sounds extreme – and self-defeating – in pursuing communications strategies.

The whole point of a PR effort is to get your client’s message out. It would be a huge mistake to assume that those in editorial are resorting to alternatives to phone/in-person interviews because they’re lazy. Far from it. They’re simply maximizing the value of the tech tools available to them today, often out of necessity.

In nearly all cases, we’re not talking about the in-depth investigative project or lengthy feature profile in which extended, verbal exchange is required. Often, the e-interview route is taken for the classic “round up” trend story, in which a half-dozen or more industry experts are quoted. Given that writers are frequently expected these days to also serve as social-media gadflies, illustration/photo producers and proofreaders/factcheckers of their own content – while taking on greater assignment/beat coverage due to massive staff reductions – who would blame them?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that e-communications is “better” than the phone conversation. Ultimately, it’s about the reporter’s preference. PR folks have to be nimble enough to get the information the way media professionals want to receive it. If it’s email, social media or the phone, so be it.

That said, the e-route is often the choice of necessity for journalists, simply out of time constraints. To illustrate, consider how those trend-piece assignments played out in the old days: You set up a phone interview. You’d spend a week or longer working with the PR contact to get the exec on the phone. The exec spoke for a half hour, and the resulting placement amounted to perhaps a couple paragraphs and a quote amid a sea of other experts interviewed.

Today, thanks to e-communications, the reporter can get questions to the PR person, then the executive responds at his/her own convenience instead of blocking out interview time. It’s a vastly streamlined process – for the reporter, PR person and the executive – and it’s entirely appropriate for this kind of content.

Other advantages: The PR rep and executive get a chance to review comments before pressing “send.” They can refine remarks if needed. (But, if they’re smart, they’ll make sure that the responses sound like a real person talking. Because if it sounds “canned” or otherwise “corporate speak-y,” the writer may ditch the interview entirely.)

Oh, and the writer is getting direct, from-the-source quotes/background, so there’s zero chance of errors in the note-taking process. I’d think any PR practitioner would welcome alternatives to the classic, fuming “I was misquoted! … He took my remarks out of context!” reaction from a client that often follows phone/in-person interviews.

Is this “easier” than the old way? Yes. But it’s also smarter. Isn’t that what technology is supposed to do?

So embrace the change instead of resisting it. Journalists are struggling to survive, really. It’s completely understandable in this Darwinian sense that they find faster, better ways to do their jobs. As a high tech PR agency, we’re constantly developing strategies to assist them while best positioning our clients amid all the fast-moving shifts within social media and digital content.

One last thought: Rudawsky writes that the lack of a phone interview is killing traditional relationship-building among media members, sources and PR people. That’s not true. Our agency team enjoys a great depth of relationships with a wealth of editorial professionals via e-communications, as part of a gameplan that also involves all other forms of interaction. We retweet their stories. We send them ‘heads ups’ on interesting industry developments. We pass along valuable information and set up interviews (live and virtual) to help them do their jobs.

And, yes, we conduct actual conversations with these journalists on the phone, meet with them face-to-face and get to know them as people.

In many other circumstances, however, these exchanges are taking place electronically. Because that’s simply the way a lot of people “talk” today.


Dennis McCafferty is Director of Content for W2 Communications.