Public Relations Tactics

News Team: Newsroom Lessons That Benefit Young PR Professionals

May 1, 2017


Twelve years in public relations haven’t shaken the reporter out of me. Nothing ever will.

What I learned in more than 20 years as a reporter and editor from the mid-1980s through 2005 applies to public relations now more than ever. Today I’m a partner in 212 Communications, a Baltimore-based PR, strategic- and crisis-communications firm, and we’re teaching our team of millennial employees to be, well, reporters — or at least to adopt the best attributes of reporters.

The lessons I learned from editors, fellow reporters and even a publisher or two in newsrooms at the Baltimore Sun, the American Banker and four other newspapers owned by American City Business Journals are too valuable to lose. But I worry that many such lessons are being lost in metropolitan newsrooms across the country as staffs shrink, seasoned reporters leave and papers go out of business.

So I’m passing these lessons down to the people I know best, my partner and our team of PR associates. We want our employees to be curious, diligent, informed and relentless in their ability to communicate in the written form.

A need for deeper understanding

What I’ve seen over the years is that PR professionals, especially younger ones, don’t understand the companies they’re hired to market, promote and protect. If the client is a bank, for example, many young PR associates don’t grasp the basics of the business — that banks make money by issuing loans and taking in deposits. We want our employees to understand the balance sheet, the difference between assets and liabilities, why a spike in nonperforming loans could mean a negative story for a bank, or how the repeal or partial repeal of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act could impact the industry.

Understanding a client’s business not only helps us identify positive stories, it also lets us anticipate tough questions from the press, so we can formulate responses.

We want our employees to be as curious as investigative reporters. Curiosity, we believe, leads to gathering information that deepens our understanding of the client’s business. We have seen this dynamic play out in many areas, but especially when a client is being attacked by nonprofit organizations. Our curiosity has led us to dig into public records of the nonprofits, revealing large salaries, heavy spending on marketing and lobbying, and a view into their operations. Such information helps us shape our strategy.

To understand what’s being said about our clients and their competitors, we relentlessly pursue knowledge — reading newspapers, magazines, blogs, Twitter and Facebook posts, and following radio and TV newscasts.

Being relentless also means knowing more about our clients than — and as much about their industry as — any reporter, to ensure mistakes and mischaracterizations are quickly caught and addressed. Young reporters and bloggers are prone to making errors, so it’s imperative that we identify mistakes and work with reporters and editors to correct the record and that we challenge critics who rely on hyperbole over fact.

Of course, we also want our employees to be good writers. We preach writing tightly and with punch, meeting deadlines at all costs, and working with clients to develop quotes that mean something and will help a reporter advance a story. We drive home the importance of avoiding empty adjectives like “excited,” as in “I am excited to take on this new challenge.” How does a statement like that inform readers or help a reporter advance the story? Press releases should inform and tell a deeper story.

Our team is small — just five people, including a 30-year veteran reporter and editor who works with us on a contract basis — and we sit next to one another to easily share lessons. This was once a common strategy in newsrooms, where cub reporters were seated next to veteran journalists. The young reporter could learn by watching and listening as a seasoned reporter conducted an interview, extracted information from a subject, worked sources or handled an overbearing editor.

Our team asks questions daily, which is how we know they’re learning: “What’s my lead for the press release? When should I pitch report ‘A’? What’s our strategy around social media for client ‘B’?”

The lessons I picked up in newsrooms across the country are being passed down, in this case to a new generation of PR professionals who will be better informed when working with clients and the press. 

Bill Atkinson

Bill Atkinson, a former reporter, columnist and editor, is a partner in 212 Communications, a Baltimore-based strategic-communications firm.


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