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PR Tip #9: It’s All About the Relationship

March 6, 2014

 Over the past 20 years, I’ve developed a thick skin. The extra layers of epidermis include scar tissue from internal battles of messaging, PR campaigns that went really well and off the rails, executive scandals, volcano eruptions and a host of other programs that--because of luck and hard work--caused little or no damage to my clients’ brands. With the emergence of social media platforms like Twitter, a thick skin can be helpful when snarky journalists work out their frustrations by whipping PR folks publically.

 

The truth is, over the course of your career, you’re going to get on the bad side of reporters. Sometimes because of mistakes you make, and sometimes because you’re following the directive of your company or client. When things go south, companies often put the PR person in front of the media to help give distance for executives, but also because they can make an easy scapegoat if the message falls flat. I remember a time, over a decade ago, that a company I was working for was announcing an acquisition.

 

The chief financial officer wanted the news to be above the fold in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and to do that, we had to offer them an exclusive. I argued against the exclusive because I didn’t think we needed it. We had great traction with the WSJ, New York Times, Financial Times and all the wires. Given the attention the company was getting, and the size of the acquisition, everyone was going to cover it. If we gave an exclusive to the WSJ, we would alienate other reporters following the company and that would hurt us in the short run and over time, if the company hit a rough patch. I lost the argument and as soon as the news hit the wire at midnight my phone was ringing. Words like trust, relationship, betrayal, etc., were spit at me by top reporters from the rest of the major outlets and none of them covered the news. Some of those relationships I was able to repair over time but some of them still won’t talk to me today, over thirteen years later.

 

The good news is you move on, and so do reporters. Their beats change, the publications they write for shift and time eventually heals all wounds…hopefully. And what we do as PR people change.

 

On the flip side, I have relationships with key media like Om Malik that date back to my time at InFocus and his time at Forbes. We’ve maintained our friendship and good working relationship through three companies, the start of my firm and his moves leading up to founding GigaOm. The same holds true for Scott Raynovich, who I met when he was at Red Herring, then moved to Light Reading and eventually to his own site, The Rayno Report. And the person that I probably consider one of my closest friends in the media world, Carol Wilson, whom I’ve known since her days at Interactive Week, then NetEconomy, Telephony and now Light Reading.

 

These relationships exist because we’ve connected outside of the pitch process. We’ve shared meals outside of a briefing, watched ball games, shared stories about family and even, at one event, got to meet Tommy Lasorda. These folks, and many more, take briefings because they know when I approach them it’s relevant to their coverage area or because it’s something I know they’ll find interesting, even if it’s not a perfect fit.

 

This level of trust and mutual respect takes time to build. There are other reporters I’ve known the same amount of time but don’t have this type of relationship with because I don’t like them and they don’t like me. But that happens and you can’t sweat it as a PR professional and still survive and thrive. The key is to find the people you like and respect, and work to develop relationships that can last your entire career.

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