On one hand, conversations between journalists and PR types shouldn’t be much different than interpersonal communication between any of us.
We all communicate differently than we used to and it’s a ton more text, email and app direct messages than once upon a time. Even stilted, agenda-driven Zoom and Teams calls fall under a similar category versus free-flowing, time consuming phone calls and, gasp, “face to face” conversations. Also on this hand, working at the speed of news has never been easier, journalists and their sources get their basic needs met quickly to free up time to work our growing daily checklists.
On the other hand, we might as well face it. We’re addicted to typing, even when it’s not best. A politics editor for a daily newspaper brought it up on Twitter the other day and it got me thinking about trends in media relations that go far beyond government and politics. This editor suggested that the reliance, even insistence, on electronic communication, particularly by those in taxpayer-funded “public information” roles reflects “an erosion of trust” and a demand by officials and their spokespeople to be “protected from every silly thing they might utter.”
We see it in business too. Let’s tell the truth here, please. Executive skin has never been thinner. The level of fear among PR types, who see themselves more often as protectors rather than communicators in an environment where words can be magnified and spread quickly, has never been higher. Written statements, which used to be the exception, when exacting legal precision was required, are more often the norm.
There are too many opportunities missed by organizations that want to maintain perceived control rather than invest the time to build audience understanding. Executives are often subject matter experts. But too often, that knowledge is left on the table, with sharing it seemingly too risky. We know of PR representatives who are prohibited from speaking to reporters on background. The net of this is one of the key fundamentals that we teach in media training – focus on saying the right things, not avoiding the wrong things – gets lost.
I’ll share an example of the most challenging media relations work I have done in recent months. Speaking for a nonpartisan voter information campaign, I was asked to help dispel misinformation about ballot counting that quickly popped up online during the day after Election Day. I had no statement. I had no script. But I did have facts and a ton of background to help fact-checking journalists understand the truth. I invested the time to talk to each of them on the phone – from across the country – to answer their questions, provide information and build understanding. It took time. It took patience. It took respect. It took clear verbal communication. It paid off. The misinformation did not stick – the truth prevailed and that absolutely would not have happened if any corner had been cut.
It’s almost impossible to reverse trends, especially one like this speeding down the tracks. But we can think critically when faced with questions about the best way to answer them and build understanding. More often than we like to admit, the answer is human-to-human conversation.