Monday, February 2, 2009

Meet Me On ...

The Dark Side

When a working journalist accepts that position as a public information officer, publicist, or public relations account executive, his colleagues usually wag their heads and say their friend has gone over to “The Dark Side”. As sure as Darth Vader is the front office, you swear you can hear the sucking sound of credibility slipping away. Actually, that’s not fair.

The best PIOs, publicists, and PR people were once journalists. Why? That’s easy: They know the details their journalist colleagues need for their stories, and they understand deadlines. When there is a big event, something sure to draw coverage from all local media and maybe more, it is comforting to reporters, producers, and editors that there is someone who knows what they’re doing, making the advance arrangements. There will be camera spaces or platforms. There may be “pool” cameras or even reporters. There will be a “mult box” with a direct audio feed from the sound system. There will be suitable, safe parking spaces for live trucks. Every question is answered. Every detail is anticipated.

Austin, being the state capital, has several strong groups capable of pulling off major events. The principals have been there and done that.

Earlier screeds railed against journalism-by-news-release in favor of enterprise. The facts are, however, public information officers, publicists, and public relations professionals play an important role in the smooth and factual dissemination of information in our free society. Sure, there are some hacks who are only spinmeisters. They’re easily identified. In today’s complex society with all of its layers of information and subgroups of consumers, it would be next to impossible to collate content without the assistance of these professionals. My previous post asked, where does news come from? A lot of it comes from a news release or a tip from a public relations pro, PIO, or publicist.

The really good PR people set the stage, lay out the facts, and get out of the way, allowing journalism to take place. Sure, they’re being paid to put their client in a good light. But, they also anticipate the problems. Further, the really good ones are transparent, honest, knowing that the truth will shine without excessive polishing.

As a former editor, I’ll admit that some news releases were dead on arrival. I’d read the first few phrases in Outlook and hit the delete button. Those releases really weren’t NEWS releases. They may have been written to satisfy a client and nothing more, while the writer knew all the while they would be DOA. That is a bad day for the PR professional—the release was written for the retainer, for the money.

A good news release should contain all of the elements of a well-written news story. Most of all, it needs a strong lead (To avoid the delete button in “Auto-Preview”). After that, the release must come close to a definition of news. There is a piece found at on the question of “What is news?” My definition is: “Events or developments that interest or affect the greatest number of people in your audience on that day.” So, a good news release must make the case that it fits that definition.

Then, if an editor or reporter agrees, the release may be used in some form or fashion. The good news release may even suggest story angles or interviews. The release can be accompanied by useful attachments—Pictures or maps, etc.—just as a one might find as part of an enterprise news story. Another site, www.mcnabbcommunications, has a detailed primer on news releases under the “For Non-Profits” tab.

Just because a story idea originates with a news release or even a news conference should not make it automatically ignored. Knowing that the release went to all newsrooms, the challenge for the journalist is to tell the story better than the competitors, taking the story a little deeper, pushing it further. If it is “news” to start out with, an enterprising reporter knows what to do with it.

It is not by accident that “public relations” is part of the journalism curriculum at most universities.

In all fairness I should mention a couple of things. After all of my years in journalism, I’m a publicity and public relations consultant now, officially planting me on “The Dark Side”. Further, I was honored with the 2002 Silver Spur Media Award from the Texas Public Relations Association when I was managing editor at KXAN TV.

© Jim McNabb, 2009

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

PIOs can be your best friends, here is Arkansas we have a pio for the state police who used to be an assigment editor back in the day.

He couldn't be more of a jerk! He makes it his job to be as difficult as possible.
Shane Deitert