Hacks vs Flacks: the changing relationship between PRs and journalists


How has the relationship between PRs and journalists changed? That was the question addressed at a Q&A panel at Microsoft’s London HQ this week.

With it generally being accepted that the power of big, traditional media organisations is on the wane news budgets are being slashed yet the demand for content is higher than ever.

The panel was made up of Kevin O’Sullivan from the Sunday Mirror, Daney Parker, Editor of PRmoment, Graham Goodkind of Frank PR, PR lecturer and author Mark Borkowski, Kristina Eriksson Head of Media Relations at the FT and Sean Ball from Pragmatist, who along with PRmoment was hosting the event.

After brief introductions the group discussed whether the balance of power had shifted away from journalists. Graham felt that the pressures now put on reporters and the way their success is measured by how many clicks their stories get has had a big impact.

“Journalists are now slaves to algorithms,” he said. “US new firm Gawker pays bonuses for the popularity of stories. This means journalists are having to rely more and more on PRs.”

The feeling was that this meant that whereas before it could be a difficulty getting clients named in articles that came about through something like celebrity endorsements, now it’s much easier with reporters even open to box-outs about products as long as they secure the content.

Speaking from a journalist’s point of view Kevin felt that the nature was something that changed over time. He said: “Back in the 80s we wouldn’t talk to PRs – they got in the way of the story. In the 90s however, the relationship became too close. We would speak to someone about something their client would not want to see in the paper and then come up with some non-facts to put in the paper instead.”

The conversation turned to the time-honoured skill of building relationships with journalists and how to get content placed. While there was rather too much talk about whether reporters prefer being contacted by phone, email or social media (reporters are people too, they’re all different) there was some interesting thoughts on whether or not relationship building was becoming a lost art for PRs.

The panel agreed that a good relationship with a journalist is not about getting favours – it’s about understanding what sort of content they are interested in and how you can earn coverage. Mark said a contact he has at the Sun told him there are 30,000 (sic) unread emails there every week. A relationship is surely the best way to bypass that inbox.

But, as Kevin put it, in typically blunt journalistic language: “It’s all about the content. If you’re my best mate and the content’s s**t then it’s not going in. If I don’t even know like you but the story’s good I’ll bite your hand off.”

  1. The pressure journalists are under to produce really well viewed stories is a concern for me as I think it narrows what gets published. Does this mean that interesting, newsworthy stories that are important but won’t get high views are even harder to pitch?

    Relationships with journalists are also really important when I’m developing a story or campaign. I regularly speak to journalists to test out ideas and get a better idea of the angle that interests them. Certainly it doesn’t mean coverage is guaranteed but it does help to ensure I pitch something that’s relevant.

  2. I think Kevin O’Sullivan hits the nail on the head. Journalistic resource has declined significantly to the extent that relationships are inconsequential when it comes to a good story. The real power is in the content and both PRs and hacks have an equal role in delivering it.

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