Playing favorites and what that means
by Liz Hester
It’s no secret that certain reporters have better access to companies, executives and information. Many have such incredible access they’re household names – creating their own brands for breaking news.
This is great for their publications — think Andrew Ross Sorkin’s branded content in Dealbook for the New York Times. By consistently being the first to the story and leveraging his sources for key details, Sorkin has been able to make a name for himself and in turn elevate the paper’s coverage.
This might seem obvious, but it’s important to note the cyclical nature of the game. Sorkin breaks a story, strengthens his brand, and in turn, more people want to talk to him. His hard work pays off, which is how it should be.
I use this example to point out the power of relationships. With each conversation, Sorkin is building trust. The more public relations people trust you to quote their executives, present their sides of the story and listen, the better the access. As more executives see you getting the story right and using the information they give, the more likely they are to take the time to talk.
Many companies choose which publications or reporters will receive information based on past experience working together. Which writer is sympathetic to this particular issue or which publication has the best track record of covering the story are all considerations in deciding who will get the heads up.
Sometimes, it’s even built into the media plan to leak the story to certain reporters or publications. When agencies or other executives put together the press plan, this is often the case for deals, they’ll build in the leak to a certain publication as part of the process. Usually the client has the final say in who gets the information first, so long-term relationships and coverage will come into play here.
It seems that everyone would be balanced, but different publications definitely have different viewpoints. Coverage is shaped by the way those editors and reporters have written about topics previously.
On the face of it, choosing if and how to leak a story is the public relations professional’s job. They should have the industry knowledge and relationships to exercise this last bit of control. But, sometimes it goes a little too far.
Recently, Stephen Roach, a Yale professor, made comments on Bloomberg TV about the power of a Wall Street Journal reporter. From the Business Insider story:
But he also took the opportunity to take a dig at both Hilsenrath and the Fed, which Bloomberg reporter Betty Liu called mere speculation:
“They [The Fed] have gone about their usual pre-FOMC leak frenzy where they talk to this reporter and that reporter. Jon Hilsenrath is actually the chairman of the Fed. When he writes something in the Wall Street Journal, Bernanke has no choice but to deliver on what he wrote.”
Obviously this is an exaggeration, but it does point out the power of consistent leaks and the perceptions that creates. On the plus side, this means the Journal has a lot of institutional knowledge, allowing them to put the news into the proper context. On the minus side, it means that other reporters and publications voices dim a little each time.
One of the best parts about the U.S. media is the competition and ability to have different perspectives. When access to information is doled out, that reduces slightly. Companies are obviously looking to break news, especially bad news, in the most favorably light possible. It’s important to keep in mind when a story breaks.
The cycle of favoritism can also make it harder for younger reporters to cover a beat. Earning that trust and building relationships often starts by writing the small scoops such as a new manager or hire from another firm, a former colleague used to call them “beat sweeteners.” They’re not groundbreaking, but can go a long way to show contacts at companies a reporter is willing to work with them and listen to their comments.
Playing favorites is unavoidable and often the product of many years hard work by reporters. It’s building those source relationships over time typically wins you the information. Problems can arise when there’s a perception that one publication has outsized power or influence when covering a story.
But it seems that given today’s competition and the speed that outlets can match each other’s reporting, the built in leak is only a temporary advantage. It’s much more important for a reporter, a reward for all the lunches and cold-calls and care spent writing a good story. We all benefit from that.