Why Do So Many Journalists Dislike PR?


This morning we came across a post on LinkedIn written by Account Executive Kim Cox of The Cline Group and titled “There’s a Reason Journalists Hate PRs.”

We were compelled — especially since the premise of the story was a reading of EZ-PR founder Ed Zitron‘s book This Is How You Pitch, which he also discussed with us two months ago.

The headline’s conflict is a problem to which we see no long-term “solution”. Cox’s point (and Zitron’s) is that each PR professional needs to develop something approaching a relationship with those on the other side of the media aisle rather than simply sending blind emails and wondering why no one ever replies.

But we all know this. And it’s not so simple, either: no matter how often the journalists Cox cited in her post talk badly about PR, we also see them going back and forth with smart reps on Twitter. And those are just the public interactions.

We reached out to Zitron, who had a few things to say and write.

In his response to the post, Zitron confirms that it is important to familiarize oneself with key media contacts, to follow them beyond scanning the headlines of their articles, and to get a better sense of their personal dispositions.

But (and this is a big one): while PR people and media people can definitely be friends, you shouldn’t fool yourself into mistaking the practice itself for “friendship” or imagining that reporters wouldn’t be able to do their jobs without your help. In a comment, Zitron writes:

“Many PR people see themselves as these smart word-gods that influence the great reporter-sphere…what we should be doing is basic logistics — signing clients we can find reporters to like.”

Both Cox and Zitron have relayed the same underlying point: the PR education system leads many entering the industry to believe that they will work together with media contacts to craft stories relevant to readers while coincidentally furthering the interests of their clients…and that those contacts really can’t wait to hear from the PRs that will empower them to do their own jobs better.

We all now know this to be, at the very least, a distortion of the truth. So why do we perpetuate it?

[A little disclaimer here: PRs have definitely helped us do our job by providing us with access to sources and, in some cases, suggesting ideas for stories. We are grateful for their help. But such perfect matches are rare.]

Another point: while PRs and their media contacts can certainly have mutually beneficial working relationships, Zitron isn’t saying that one should email “influencers” to ask if they plan to get the new iPhone or whether they thought David Fincher did justice to Gillian Flynn’s work with Gone Girl.

From another commenter on the post:

“PR people are not trying to help journalists professionally. They’re trying to promote their employers’ or clients’ agendas/products/services.”

Well yes — and the hope is that the latter can reinforce the former as often as possible. But there are living, breathing, foul-smelling people with emotions and varying levels of fatigue on both sides of any such exchange. The goal is to be useful in a given circumstance when it arrives rather than to remind your contacts that you exist (hi!!!) or to keep poking someone with repeated “are you interested?!?!” messages in the hope that they will eventually concede.

On the “interacting outside of work” thing: we are hardly masters of social media. But we can say that favoriting everything a given contact posts on Twitter isn’t endearing — it’s kind of weird. From another commenter:

“As a journalist I got thoroughly fed-up with PR people pretending we were friends when we weren’t. The ‘not a pitch’ email is a prime example – insincere, manipulative, cynical.”

We rarely encounter this particular phenomenon, but then we don’t write for TechCrunch or The Wall Street Journal, either. Zitron says:

“I have plenty of close friends who are reporters who don’t run any of my stories — not because we’re friends but because I don’t have anything they want.”

These points aside, though, the main idea behind the post is absolutely true: it’s pretty obvious when a PR wants your interest but has little interest in you. Despite the push-pull dynamic at work here, we as human beings tend to respond negatively when we feel like we’re being used or misled.

Zitron followed up with a post on his own blog in which he takes a more confrontational tone on the white lies and not-so-white lies that we sometimes tell ourselves and others. A quick sample:

“PR people lie constantly – hell, I’ve heard a few today.”

It’s not a pleasant read, and it doesn’t concern pitching as much as general communications. For example, Zitron summarizes the many different techniques used to avoid answering questions asked by clients and journalists alike. One issue he addresses is the “convincing statement”, so named not because it succeeds at convincing anyone but because it is designed to do so:

“If a car crash happens in a ridesharing service because the person driving the car was drunk, the company saying ‘we take safety as our number one concern’ is a convincing statement. ‘We’re working our absolute hardest’ is a convincing statement.”

And that obvious sense of self-interest is the reason everyone has given Uber so much grief for its non-responses. Going back to the pitching process, we’ll leave you with this passage:

“Every hyperbolic gesture, every suggestion of being ‘amazing,’ every thing in there that isn’t ‘this is what it does and why it’s good’ without frosting, is an actual lie.

Stretching the truth and hyperbole in pitches is lying.”

We strongly recommend that you read it. Just be prepared.

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.