PIOs Are People, Too (Nine Things That Drive PIOs Nuts)

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[Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Lauren Rugani, a media relations officer at the National Academy of Sciences. She previously worked in communications offices at CERN and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, as well as on the editorial staff at Technology Review and Photonics Spectra. I don’t agree with all of her points (I actually don’t mind sharing additional sources, and kind of enjoy customizing pitches), but I loved her idea of compiling a list of things that reporters do that drive public information officers (PIOs) nuts. Discuss.]

Earlier this week, I came across a list by Natalie DiBlasio at USA Today with the top 10 things that (usually) make her ignore a pitch. They are all very good points, but it’s pretty much the same list we’re used to seeing every few months, and most PR professionals and PIOs know enough to avoid doing these things. I expressed my weariness of such lists on Twitter and said it was just as easy to write one about reasons that make PIOs not want to work with journalists.

Natalie was interested in what that list would look like, and said she would share it with her colleagues if I wrote one. So I did. And because Natalie seems open to having a real conversation about how we can make each other’s lives easier, I tried to approach this in a helpful way.

It sounds like Natalie’s list is geared more toward agency PR professionals who bill by the quarter-hour and my rebuttal list comes from the perspective of an in-house public information officer at a scientific institution. So it might be slightly apples to oranges. And these are personal perspectives with a few outside contributions, so others may have different experiences.

1). Do your homework. Journalists often complain that PR folks don’t “do their homework” before pitching – that is, read up on the journalist, figure out what they write about or whether they just wrote the story you’re pitching. But doing your homework goes both ways. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten a phone call from a journalist who says, “I was talking to this guy last week and he mentioned something you did about computers in like, 2011. Or maybe it was 2008. Can I talk to someone who worked on that?” Do some research first and then call us with some specific details: the name of the person you’d like to talk to, or a journal name, publication date, or even newspaper article as a reference for where you came across our work so we can help you. That being said, cold calls are okay if you’re researching a new topic and aren’t sure where to start or are looking for resources.

But keep in mind…

Lauren Rugani (Photo: Brad Plummer)

2). We need lead time too. Journalists constantly remind us they need 24 hours or three days or a week’s notice if we want them to cover our stuff. And, to the best of my ability, I try to respect that.  I do my part, so please do not call me at 2 p.m. demanding to talk to the president of my organization when your deadline is 3 p.m. I understand that seeking comment for breaking news is a bit different. But our staff is busy, they may not be accessible immediately by email or phone, and it takes time to track them down. If you’re asking for all the research the zoology department has done on rabbits in the past 10 years it’s going to take a day or two to round that up and find some people who can talk to you.

3). Don’t be rude. This one comes from Matt Shipman via Twitter: “I know you’re on deadline. I’ve been on deadline too. That’s not an excuse to be an asshole.” It’s true that a polite request – especially a last minute one – will go a long way.

4). Don’t expect us to do your jobs for you.

  • I am more than happy to put you on the phone with someone or point you to work we’ve done that’s relevant to your story. But please do not ask me where else you should look for information, who some other “great sources” would be, or if I have their phone numbers.
  • I hate to break it to you, but we simply cannot write hundreds of individually tailored pitches about the same piece of research, so advisories and press releases are essentially one-size-fits-all.  If we think you’re THE person to cover something, that’s when we’ll reach out with a personal note. But it’s still up to you to craft your own story.
  • Although you might feel otherwise, we don’t actually write a press release or pitch you about every single thing we do. So when you see a story on the front page of the paper, please do not call me in an angry fit that you didn’t know about it first. If a reporter came looking for a story, and we helped her find it, it’s not our responsibility to make sure every other media outlet knows about it. (In fact, you’d be pretty pissed if we scooped YOUR story like that.) If the story did come from one of our media tip-sheets or pitches that you blithely deleted without reading, that’s on you. Sorry.

5). Help us help you. You get annoyed when we spam you with unwanted pitches. Then you feel cheated that we didn’t call you personally to tell you about the Next Big Thing. The best way to make sure you’re getting the most useful information from us is to tell us what would be most useful to you. Generally, if we’ve pitched you it’s because we think there’s a reasonable chance you’d be interested. But sometimes we get it wrong. If we’re totally off-base or have sent you multiple pitches for things you’d never cover, the best thing to do is reach out with a polite email saying, “I actually cover a different beat and would be interested in those pitches instead,” or, “Here’s a colleague that might be a better fit.” This is truly helpful and we will listen to you.

6). Be responsible with your headlines. Another pet peeve of most journalists is hyperbolic language in press releases. But I can’t tell you how infuriating it is to see a headline that is barely faithful to the actual story and is clearly only there to drive traffic. Sometimes the story is great and spot on, but awful headlines are what get tweeted and repeated, and thus the story becomes the headline and the headline becomes the story. And don’t blame bad headlines on an intern or some night shift editor that you’ve never met. If a headline is misleading, especially if it misrepresents the great story you’ve just written, speak up.

7). Details matter. Understand who we are and what we do. Speaking from personal experience, one of the top reasons I call and ask for a correction is because journalists confuse my organization, a nonprofit, for a federal agency. (And I know no one ever reads that far, but it’s all there in our boilerplate on Every. Single. Press Release.) And for Pete’s sake make sure you spell the name of the institution or whoever you quote correctly.

8). Don’t get it wrong. This sort of combines #6 and #7, but goes a little further. If you don’t understand something, ask. I’m way happier to spend 10 minutes on the phone with you to iron out some details than to spend weeks undoing the terrible damage you did, both by perpetuating misinformation throughout the media and making the people I work with angry and even more reluctant to work with me – and you – in the future. And it IS okay to share the story before running. You don’t have to share the whole thing or tell us who else you quoted. Share a sentence or two and ask, did I get that right? You’re not tainting the objectivity of the story, you’re fact checking. As you should.

Matt chimes in again here and says that a bad track record is a major red flag: “If you can’t get your facts straight, consistently misquote people and are generally unreliable that means you are a lazy reporter, and I have no incentive to work with you.”

9). We’re not lying to you. Also from Matt: “One more pet peeve: when I tell people I don’t know something and they think I’m lying. My credibility is important to me. I don’t lie. Ever. If I can’t tell you something, I’ll say ‘I can’t answer that.’ But if I say I don’t know, it means I don’t know.”

In short, it comes down to relationships. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. We really appreciate your coverage when we have something important or just plain cool to talk about, and we’re happy to be a resource when you’re researching a new story or just digging around for ideas.  If you’ve worked well with us in the past, we’re more inclined to help you in the future.

I’ve worked on both sides of the fence and understand the frustrations on both ends, as has Matt. But instead of powwowing with our own tribes and griping about the other guy, we’re both more likely to get what we want if we work to meet each other halfway. And I really appreciate Natalie for being open to my perspective and willing to share these thoughts with her colleagues. BTW, Natalie – we’re practically neighbors. We should totally get together for a beer sometime.


4 thoughts on “PIOs Are People, Too (Nine Things That Drive PIOs Nuts)

  1. As I stated (briefly) in my editor’s note at the top, there are a few things that Lauren and I disagree on — which is fine, since the whole idea of asking someone to write a guest post is to get a different perspective. But I want to talk a bit about the items where Lauren and I differ, and why I disagree. This is not to be critical, but because I think it can contribute to a discussion. (Which would be good, right?)

    Item 4, part one): I’m always happy to help reporters who ask for additional contacts. For one thing, I did that a lot when I was a reporter. But it’s also in my best interest. If I point a reporter toward useful contacts (even ones at other institutions), they’re more likely to work with me in the future. I’ve often sent reporters to experts at other organizations. It doesn’t hurt me, it might help me, and it is definitely in the best interest of the final story (which, believe it or not, I actually care about).

    Item 4, part two): I have no problem customizing my pitches. Hopefully, it lets reporters know that I’ve actually taken the time and effort to figure out what they cover. (Sometimes I get it wrong, though, in which case I totally agree with Lauren’s 5th item).

    Item 6): I know that reporters often don’t have control over headlines. When I was a reporter, I banged my head on the desk more than once at the headline someone else had put on one of my stories. It was VERY frustrating. So, I don’t blame the reporter. However, I do urge reporters to fight against crappy headlines. I did, and sometimes I actually got the editors to change their minds. (I stress *sometimes*.)

    8): I’d never expect a reporter to share a story with me or my institution before running it. There are reasons for that, but the explanation is l-e-n-g-t-h-y. However, fact-checking is awesome. And while mistakes are never a good thing, I understand that they do happen. Occasionally. If they crop up all the time in your work, that’s a problem.

    9): I said this, and it’s true. I freaking HATE it when people say I’m lying. I’m not a liar. I understand that there are two-faced PR people out there, so I’m never surprised when people are skeptical of what I’m saying. But if you think I’m a liar, stop talking to me. If I really am a liar, you are wasting your time. And, since there is nothing I can say to convince you that I am telling the truth, you are wasting mine.

    (I have nothing to add to points 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7 — Lauren nailed ’em.)


  2. Lauren Rugani

    Matt, I don’t disagree with your disagreements of my takes.

    When it comes to providing additional sources, I guess my problem arises when I don’t have them. If I really have no idea where to direct someone, I’m just going to Google it, which is something the reporter can easily do on his or her own.

    I customize pitches, too. Just not for every single reporter, every single time we issue a press release. And maybe my organization is different in that we issue up to 250 press releases a year and have thousands of reporters in our databases. So you can see why that would be a daunting task 🙂

    You’re totally right that journalists often don’t have control over headlines. So maybe that item was better directed at editors. However, I totally agree that journalists should continue to fight the good fight.

    Finally, I should clarify that I never ask reporters to see a story, or even quotes. I’m just saying that it’s OK to share a line or two to make sure you’re getting a tricky detail or concept correct.

    Thanks again for letting me use this space, and I hope others chime in with their own experiences!


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