Know Thy Enemy: How to Work with Tough Reporters

By: Guest | October 25, 2012 | 

Today’s guest post is by Elissa Freeman.

Dealing with difficult reporters is a necessary evil if you’re a PR pro.

But does it really have to be?

During my career I’ve developed an approach to dealing with reporters who are inherently difficult.

Sure, I’ve harboured delicious thoughts of telling a choice few just what I think of them; and these are great conversations – inside my head.

If an entity as powerful as the U.S. state department can lose the war of words with an ornery reporter, then so will you.

As someone once told me, “There’s no use fighting against an organization that buys ink by the barrel.”

Here, then, is my secret recipe for dealing with tough reporters.

Know Thy Enemy

Just like you would acquaint yourself with friendly beat reporters/editors, you need to do the same with your critics. Trust me, there will be trepidation on both sides; after all, who has coffee with someone paid to criticize your organization? PR pros with cojones, that’s who. Get to know them; remember they are people too. I always do this. The result? It takes the edge off your subsequent professional encounters. And who knows? You may even end up liking one another.

They are Just Doing their Job

Critics get paid to criticize, not write fluff pieces. Respect their job, provide what is asked (using good PR practices), and chances are your organization will receive fair treatment in the news piece.

They Know How the Game Works

Every reporter knows what happens on the other side once a contentious question is asked. They know you will likely respond by email to control the messaging. They know you are running around getting a quote approved. Just get the quote in by the deadline. This is also called relationship building.

Hold them Close

Sometimes reporters don’t have the whole picture; many of their opinions can be based on hearsay or conjecture. Organize a one-on-one briefing with appropriate members of your senior team. If your organization has nothing to hide and you want to create clarity, these briefings work wonders. Reporters enjoy being taken seriously. Remember: Be prepared for other questions to potentially arise during these sessions.

Editorial Boards

When a media outlet seems intent on hammering your organization on a frequent basis, it may be time to organize an editorial board. The outlet will gather their managing editor, beat reporters, and perhaps the publisher to hear what you have to say. Be prepared with a solid presentation giving an overview of your organization with salient truths/facts they need to know and be prepped to handle the Q&A session that will follow.

What do you think? Do you have other tips that have worked for you?

Named one of twitter’s Top 52 PR pros, Elissa Freeman is a 25-year industry veteran and popular guest blogger and speaker. You can find her on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter



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  • While I’m sure (or hope) it is tongue in cheek, I think step one is to not consider us the enemy.

    • ElissaFreeman

      @ClayMorgan The unfortunate truth is there are some PR peeps who do look at reporters as ‘the enemy’ – I’m specifically thinking of the example used above from the State Department vs CNN.  Personally? I prefer to make love, not war!

  • John_Trader1

    I only consider a reporter to be an “enemy” when they don’t take the time to learn the whole story before publishing an article. Take technology for example. Can’t tell you how many times I have seen reporters report misinformation about how a certain tech works because they are spoon fed information from an organization just looking to get coverage. On many occasions I have called them out on the mistakes they make in their articles only to be met by the sound of crickets because they don’t want to look foolish printing another article admitting their mistakes. They are covering the tech because it’s new and “cool” and that’s what gets them readers. Know what that does? It perpetuates rumors, lies and misinformation to the public who spread it like wildfire and makes my job very difficult. What ever happened to telling the truth? 
    Like your idea of sitting down with them over coffee or whatever and having a one on one. Unfortunately, when you are a multi-national organization this is a lot easier said than done. I also like to meet them face to face at conventions and explain to them how things actually work which they seem to be much more receptive to. A lot of journalists don’t like to be corrected via digital channels.
    Great post Elissa!

    • ElissaFreeman

      @John_Trader1 Oh John…I so hear you.  I used do to healthcare PR for a large Canadian NFP and we had two type of reporters: those that knew how to interpret research and those that didn’t. The latter? Always, always had some sort of misinformation in their story.  Used to drive the doctors/researchers crazy mainly, to your point, because misinformation perpetuates the wrong facts!

      • John_Trader1

        @ElissaFreeman And therein lies the problem. Because a large majority of the public interprets journalists work as 100% fact, this gets spread to others who also buy into it. Most of the time, journalists are outstanding and diligent about research. It just takes one slip up to create a s*&$storm that PR people have to fix which can sometimes take a long long time. That’s the source of the frustration. But, I suspect almost all PR people know this.

  • elissapr

    @John_Trader1 @SpinSucks Hey John! Thanks for the RT!

    • John_Trader1

      @elissapr Greetings my friend. LOVED the post today. Got me all fired up! Appreciate you sharing the knowledge.

      • elissapr

        @John_Trader1 blushhhhhh! Glad you enjoyed!

        • John_Trader1

          @elissapr Do you and @rebeccaamytodd hang out? I so need to make a trip up there to visit you and her.

  • Facetime61

    I find most reporters are reasonable people trying to do a hard and often thankless job. Yes, there has been the Male Diva or two that call up and bark orders, etc and use intimidation as a form of questions etc. We may usually need them more than they do us, but not in every single case.   Well who do YOU think we will give the scoop to?  The genuinely hostile person who has some odd need to trample and crush and not just talk, (Think Aesop’s Sun & Wind Fable) or the reasonable person who even if they don’t always write the most glowing thing, always gives a balanced take, and a fair and accurate quote. Uh. Gee.  So sometimes you can choose.  That all said, if you don’t know what they cover, poorly prepare your interview subject(s), or otherwise expect them to fluff up something that is not news, you get what you get. Respect someone’s work and at the very least it makes it easier for them to (try to/maybe/someday) respect yours.

    • ElissaFreeman

      @Facetime61 Great points! Often a reporters’ bark is worse than their bite (which is hardly as clever as your Aesop’s Fable analogy!); but as long as PR pros work with integrity in answering their inquiry. a relationship of mutual respect can be built.

  • Facetime61

    Oh and I hit post before editing to include — Thanks for posting Elissa

  • Sometimes a simple conversation one on one can do wonders for a relationship.

  • timepass

    @elissapr and thank you for a great post!

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  • I finally got to this post, and what great advice it is. I’ve been dealing with a specifically prickly and intelligent reporter for a powerful publication.  Nothing has worked, and I think the editorial board is a great suggestion.

    • ElissaFreeman

      @AmyMccTobin Thank you! As there will be other people in the room (editors/reporters) make sure you prepare a deck of the points you want to get across.. Also make sure you or your spokesperson is well prepped for Q and A after…

  • karenswim

    Elissa, such a great post with solid, practical advice. What came through so clearly is respect. We all have our jobs to do and if we approach people from a place of respect we can diffuse animosity and at the very least operate from a place of mutual respect.

    • ElissaFreeman

      @karenswim Thank you, Karen! At the end of the day, we are all just people…and we need to relate to each other as such…no matter what our jobs are…

  • elissapr

    @rachaelseda Thank you for the RT of my post!

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