How Journalists think versus PR people and why that matters

It’s not just the journalist who decides the story

Funmi Lijadu is a journalist and a PR person.

The two roles allow her to see things from both sides and in the episode of The Public Relations Podcast that she appeared in, she pointed out that in some ways journalists are more restricted that PR people.

These were the points she made. 

Journalists are after a story but the decision on which story to cover is not often down to them. They regularly have to answer to a news editor. The editor’s job is to keep the tone of the outlet on course and ensure the outlet’s audience gets what they want.

So while journalists will certainly pitch ideas to an editor, it’s often the editor who makes the decision. This places more importance on giving journalists the things they need to be able to “sell” the story to the editor.

That doesn’t mean journalists don’t have any freedom. Indeed editors often say to journalists, “I need a story that is like this. Speak to this and that person and see if you can find out why X happen.” In this case, the editor sets the tone and objective of the article and the journalist now needs to use their creativity to fill in the missing bits. 

But the journalist can’t just relax at this point because the brief will keep changing. Editors know their audiences are always looking for fresh new content. It needs to fit within the general tone but the story will always be moving ahead. What an outlet liked last year may not be of any interest to them now. 

Management changes and editors change. This can have a big impact on what people create, especially when a journalist moves to a new outlet. 

Your name is on the line

There aren’t many PR people who put their names publically on the content they are creating. People know PRs represent others. But journalists often have a by-line. They take ownership of the content they write. That makes them naturally suspicious and resistant when they get hard pitches. 

Journalists need to be accurate and clear. They can’t just play with words in the way PR people can. They need to think about the legal implications of what they write.

If the facts are not correct, they could end up humiliated or in court. There aren’t many PR people who face that prospect.

They also regularly get abuse, not just from people who may not like their content but from trolls simply because their name is out there. 

How to think like a journalist

Journalism experience can be a real benefit in PR. It’s no surprise that a lot of journalists become PR people. But what if you don’t have journalism experience?

Start looking for opportunities to go into a newsroom, or if there is no newsroom, have coffee with a journalist to learn about their work.

If you don’t know any suitable journalists, ask your friends if they know someone, or if they know someone who knows one. Don’t be put off if they work in a different sector. Journalists often know other journalists and can still give you an insight into how others think.

Are there any parties where there might be a journalist? I remember being at a hotel in Italy and chatting with a couple, one of whom turned out to be a deference correspondent.

When you meet up, don’t just pitch a story. The first time you meet a journalist they are going to be on guard. They have heard so many pitches so don’t make one. Be the exception because that will make you stand out. Ideally, you’ll know something about them. Maybe they like soccer or art. In which case talk about that instead. If you develop rapport then they’ll inevitably ask what you do, don’t pitch the story, just tell them what you are up to. Make it conversational, not a pitch. 

What might you learn?

The more you can learn about the way journalists think the better. Here are a few points that Funmi shared.

Don’t just present a bundle of facts without any core story because journalists’ will respond with “Well what am I going to do with that?”

Read lots of things by the journalist to see how they craft their stories and the sort of angles that will go down well with them.

“Stalk” their social media to see what opinions and biases they might have and use that. Focus on adding that to your pitch and approach for them. Once you know what makes them tick, you can approach them saying, “Hi, I saw this piece you wrote about <X> and my client is working on that or doing something in relation to that.”

Journalists are human too. Ultimately we all like to have other people support our own view of the world. If you provide information that does that for them, you’ll have more chance of getting covered. 

By making it relatable, you may still not get covered by they’ll be more likely to read it. 

The problem for PR people

So you’ve got all this great information about the journalist. You know what they like and need. But what do you do when your boss or a client won’t play ball?

The reality is we all know clients and bosses who just don’t get what makes the news. It’s a PRs job to try and educate them of course but as Funmi says, the process can often seem more of a negotiation than education and it’s one you’ll lose sometimes. 

The reality is it’s hard to pitch a story no journalist wants to run.
Unless you pay for an “advertorial”, journalists will not run what they can’t use and trying to push a story and tricking journalists or putting pressure on them to use it will backfire not on this client but on you and your relationships with them. 

You can try and massage the piece, change the context, make it more punchy and emphasise what journalists need but there is only so much you can do. It’s one of the reasons why you want to interview clients or choose the right job to do as a PR to make sure you’ll be able to succeed.

Do journalists want press releases anymore?

Funmi Lijadu says relationships are by far the most important thing in PR. Writing a press release and knowing a journalist will open it can help to give a lot of confidence in your work while increasing your chances of it being used. 

There are lots of formulas for press releases but they only go so far. At the end of the day, the most successful formula for getting a press release read is to have a relationship with that journalist. 

Why do all this?

If you spend time around journalists it’ll become less like a “battle” with them. The more you understand, the more you’ll be able to help them do their jobs which allows you to do yours.