Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The First Rule of "Gotcha Journalism"

"Fight Club" fans already know the answer to this. The first rule of "gotcha journalism" is you do not talk about "gotcha journalism."

So when asked to speak at last week’s Bulldog Reporter webinar on the topic of how PR spokespeople can combat overly aggressive tactics, I punted and said, "It's just journalism."

Thinking back on years of interaction with journalists, I recall only a few legitimate fights and not too many sucker punches.

A little over a year ago, I took a call from a Guardian reporter I didn’t know. After he laid out his story premise and research, I thought, “I bet I know who’s going to win the Pulitzer Prize next year,” before connecting him with a colleague who declined comment on behalf of the company.

Surely, that wasn't "gotcha journalism." (It may have been something else, given what we soon publicly learned of Glenn Greenwald's source, but that's an even thornier issue.)

As a PR person, I may not like or expect a reporter’s question, but that doesn’t make the question unfair. Similarly, a reporter may not like my answer, but that doesn’t make the answer – even when I must decline comment -- any less valid.

This give-and-take between journalist and source is changing due to technology. PR can't reliably play the "let's-go-off-the-record" game because not everyone follows the same rules. The New York Times can't play the "you-have-150-words-to-respond-with-a-letter" game because it doesn't own the printing press anymore.

Today everyone – including PR people, brands, trolls, conspiracy theorists and even my mother – can be a publisher. That may level the field a bit for PR, but it also makes the role of the journalist even more critical.

It's getting harder and harder for readers or viewers to find authenticity online. With that in mind, here’s a suggested start at my New Rules of Media Relations:
  1. Show a little faith in people – including parents, teachers and, yes, even journalists – who try to help people find or discern the truth.
  2. Do not talk about this with journalists.
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