With a background as a journalist and as a public relations professional, I feel fortunate to have been on both sides of this fence that I currently straddle- albeit uncomfortably.
As a public relations professional, I make it a priority to be as cooperative with the media as possible. I want them to write about the companies I represent when these companies have something important to say. I also want the media to have all of the facts and information to write a fair story when they are writing about a less-than-flattering topic regarding the companies I represent. This is the dance you must learn in public relations. Sometimes the media will write about what you want them to, and other times they will write about what you wish they hadn't. But above all, keeping those communication lines open is paramount.
As a reporter at a daily newspaper, nothing was more irritating than to leave messages with people you needed to get comments from, and as your deadline loomed, the people hadn't returned your calls. In the back of my mind, I would find myself thinking that if it was possible to work around this person next time, I would do so.
These days I play the role of reporter and public relations professional, which makes this dance even more interesting. I am a freelance writer for several Polk County publications, and I've had two instances recently that to me, really drive home the title of this blog- return a freaking phone call!
Instance #1- I recently wrote an article about company Christmas parties, the reasons for having them and the potential liabilities involved. My husband works for Publix (I love Publix, so it pains me to write this), and I learned that the employees in his department had raised their own money to host a Christmas party. I wanted to speak to the organizers and make arrangements to get photos at their party to accompany my story. I called a fellow Florida Public Relations Association member involved in PR with Publix, and she referred me to the appropriate person I needed to speak with to obtain permission to conduct this interview. I called that person and emailed her. I called four times. I emailed twice. I spoke to another woman in her office. I never- NEVER- received a call back.
I was indignant. And, I said to myself, "Screw it. If they don't want good publicity, I'm certainly not going to force it down their throats."
Is this a professional attitude? Certainly not. But take note, PR professionals: this is how MANY journalists react when you don't do what they want, when they want it. It's an ugly truth, but it's the truth, nonetheless.
I went to this Christmas party with my husband and wound up meeting the organizer I had hoped to interview for my story. It turns out that she knew I had been inquiring about an interview. The woman who never returned my phone calls had been working behind the scenes to get me my interview. Here's the problem: I never knew that, so I moved on to other sources. The party organizer couldn't have been more disappointed to hear that I no longer planned to include the Publix angle in my story. She was apologetic, and was sure to tell me she had been seeking permission to speak to me through her chain of command. This is a concept I understand well. I would have been glad to hold off on the story, had I known that my requests were being addressed. Instead, I felt ignored and disregarded.
Incident #2- This is a story idea that isn't dead yet, so I'm intentionally being a bit vague. I've placed two calls to a source at Lakeland Regional Medical Center about a feel-good story I hope to do for a local publication's spring issue. The group within the hospital has an on-going complaint of never getting any media attention. I'm prepared to help change that by doing this story. The friend who told me about the story idea gave me a point of contact at LRMC. I've called this person twice, and she hasn't called me back. I spoke to my friend recently and told her I've made two attempts, to no avail.
The friend calls the contact person and finds out that she has received my messages, but she is going through the public relations representatives at the hospital to get permission to speak to me. Again, this is a concept I understand. So why not call me and tell me that, so I at least know you've received my messages?
So what am I getting at, dear PR professionals? Return a freaking phone call!!! If a reporter calls and wants to do a story, but you must first clear it through your internal processes, that's fine. We understand. But CALL US AND TELL US THAT. Don't leave us hanging, thinking that you're disregarding our requests for interviews.
And to those of you who include not returning phone calls in your day-to-day PR practices, let me share this with you: you are soooooo not doing yourselves any favors with the media. Reporters are avoiding people such as you like the plague. You are the ones on whom we hinge our hopes of getting those great quotes by deadline. And you are the ones who disappoint us. And then, you become the ones we put on our mental list of people not to call, because you refuse to return a freaking phone call.
I would love to hear from journalists and PR professionals on this one, so I welcome your comments. Don't hold back!