Email Media Relations Can Be Risky Business

PR types and journalists shouldn’t just be working together. We can learn from each other too.

Last weekend, I was honored to be asked to speak at a first-of-its-kind event, created by the Asian American Journalists Association’s Detroit chapter, in partnership with the regional chapters of National Association of Black Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Public Relations Society of America. The concept was to spend a Saturday giving members of the community a chance to learn, directly from those who do it every day, how to get attention from journalists for viable stories that may not see the light of day otherwise.

I went to the event to speak, but also to listen, and one panel of journalists was particularly enlightening. They are well aware of the trend we wrote about earlier this year with certain organizations, particularly government entities, wanting to communicate, usually over email, exclusively by written statements. These reporters and editors warned against the practice for anyone who actually wants to inform audiences. That’s because statements may be helpful for those who issue them when it comes to final writing. But for reporting, helping a journalists actually track down information, gain an education of a situation or issue, verify facts and form a story, there’s nothing like human-to-human interaction.

Here are two nuggets journalists shared on that panel relevant to those of us trying to navigate the statement craze on a daily basis:

-Reporters are being asked more often to write about the questions that the subject of a story doesn’t answer rather than just copying and pasting the statement into a story and leaving it at that. News organizations believe that shows audiences that they are doing the work, even if the subject chooses not to participate fully in the opportunity granted them. They think extra explanation will begin to chip away at perceptions of bias.

-If subjects of stories choose to participate in an email exchange only, they should remember they are essentially waiving the right to inform and enlighten by selecting to only carefully answer questions.

Everyone involved understands that some use of statements is part of the deal, particularly when there’s litigation or the imminent threat of litigation involved. But good reporters, committed to getting the story right, will accept background from an experienced communicator as a complement to increase their understanding. The personal touch, when applied professionally, rarely, if ever, hurts. If it’s missing, then there’s a better chance of the story being incorrect or incomplete – a worse outcome, sometimes, than a nervous executive or an imperfect, but capable, spokesperson.

The irony here is that the “statement only” approach is seen by many as safe. But the fact remains, it can be risky business.