You own a business or drive a business’ marketing or PR strategy, and you want to build your network of expert reporters. But are you considering how you can build relationships with reporters in an ethical way?
There are ethically right and wrong ways (with some gray areas in between) in which tech marketers can build work relationships with reporters. I’ve experienced all three, and when those relationships have a strong foundation, it benefits both parties (for the most part—Some caveats on editorial judgement are discussed later in this article).
The best professional relationships are built, not bought
That’s the most important point I hope to get across as I dive into the topic of building work relationships with reporters. You are helping each other do your respective jobs today, and laying the groundwork for a working relationship that lasts beyond a beat change or your career move. If a reporter knows you are good to work with (see below), she is more likely to let you know when her beat is changed and introduce you to the new beat contact. And if he has to pass on a story, he might tell you who would be interested. If you change jobs, roles, or leave your company, those reporters can rely on you to refer them to a new source. This builds your network and theirs.
There is a fairly simple formula you can follow when getting to know the reporters who cover your subject area.
- Schedule an informal face-to-face introduction, ideally at a public but casual location like a coffee shop. Let reporters pay for their own food. It’s generally frowned upon in the news industry for a reporter to allow a source to pay for items that are non-informational.
- Let the reporters set the length of the talk. Expect at least 15 minutes, but if a reporter has a free afternoon and a lot of questions, the discussion could last up to an hour. If you meet at a casual location like a coffee shop, reporters can leave quickly if a breaking news item occurs. Offer to meet them at their office. (Personally, I don’t usually like meeting a source at my office, because there isn’t always a quiet place to talk.)
- Let them know your specific areas of expertise, and let them know what subject areas you’re passionate about. Let them know what’s coming up on your calendar.
- Ask them what their beats are (this means their areas of expertise) and what sort of topics they’re hoping to cover in the future. Sometimes recent personnel changes can largely affect coverage, or sometimes there’s a special section coming up, and you can tailor press releases to those needs.
- Leave a business card. It’s fine if you leave a press packet, but it’ll probably get put in a pile of press packets on the reporter’s desk. The most important thing you can do is leave the reporter with a list of people they can contact for immediate information (we’re talking within the hour of getting a media request). That sort of access is the best thing you can ever provide to strengthen your work relationship with a news reporter.
… So don’t offer gifts, payments, or perks
Reporters do not work for you. Therefore, do not try and pay them. I’ve run into this (twice). It’s rare, but sometimes companies don’t realize that I write about them because I find their work interesting. Or because their work is changing the way one of my beats works. (I don’t write about companies because they give me money. That’s my editor’s job.)
However, it has come to my attention that one area is a slight gray area among freelancers: Whether it’s ethically OK to accept plane tickets and hotel vouchers from companies while traveling to cover an event or topic the company is involved in. Some examples might be getting accomodations at a hotel while covering a music festival or getting a free flight from a company while covering their on-site demonstration in another state.
Some reporters will accept these accommodations, but it’s an ethical violation to expect that that exchange will guarantee you positive coverage. (If your music festival was horrible, you’re still getting a horrible review, whether or not you paid for the reporter’s hotel.)
I can’t give good guidance on whether or not to offer accommodations. All I know is that I’ve rejected flights from sources because I don’t want to cross ethical lines that I can’t uncross. (The New York Times, for example, has been known to reject freelance writers who accept flights from sources.)
At the end of the day, the best relationship-building move you can make for a reporter is giving them information and access. If you do that on a regular basis—and if you’re quick to respond to inquiries and are at least a little bit polite, you’ll establish a good working relationship.