When a biz journalist must get adversarial with a PR person

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adversaries

Richard Dukas, who runs a public relations firm in New York, wrote earlier this week here on Talking Biz News about how business journalists can get the most out of their relationships with PR people. His piece has got some great advice.

Dukas advised that business journalists should avoid having an adversarial relationship with PR people if they want to get the most out of them. Treating them with respect, he wrote, is often reciprocated. In theory, that’s a nice, warm feeling to have.

In reality, I say bunk.

An adversarial relationship means that you, the business journalist, are often pushing the company into telling you things that they don’t want to divulge. That’s a good business journalist.

In addition, an adversarial relationship is often required because of mistreatment by PR.

Let me give you a few examples from my career as a business journalist where I believe an adversarial relationship was warranted.

In the 1990s, I covered a large beverage company based in Atlanta for both the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and then Bloomberg News.

One time I proposed a story to the PR people at the company examining its sports marketing strategy. The PR people thought it was a great idea and said they would get back to me to set up some interviews. A week went by, and I heard nothing. So I called again, and I was assured they were working on setting up some interviews.

After another week, the silence got to me. In a phone conversation with a source at the company, I discovered that the PR people had taken my sports marketing strategy story pitch and given it to a reporter who also covered the company at a national newspaper. I was told by my source that a story was likely to appear the next day in that national newspaper.

I was livid, but I did not call the company that day. Instead, I worked as hard as I could to report and write my own story for tomorrow’s paper so it would not seem to my bosses that I had been scooped on my beat.

The next day, however, was extremely adversarial. I rarely, if ever, yell at someone. But two PR people at the company felt my wrath that day. How could I trust or work with them in the future? The situation demanded that I be adversarial, especially after they admitted what they had done.

This was not the only time where a confrontational attitude was warranted toward the PR people at this company. Later, while at Bloomberg, I had requested interviews with the company’s new leadership team. I was promised I would get my interviews. Yet, I saw the company drag its feet in dealing with me so that the executives could speak to The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine.

I complained multiple times to a vice president who oversaw corporate communications, which resulted in a verbal confrontation in front of other employees at the company because I felt as if Bloomberg was not being given the respect it deserved.

I encountered another situation at Bloomberg when I wrote a story about a Charlotte-based company being a likely takeover candidate. The company’s stock price was moving abnormally higher, and after making some calls, an analyst who covered the company told me that he thought the business was an M&A target and that was what was causing the higher stock price.

The analyst was quoted in my story. Before I published, I also called the company and was told that its PR person was out of the office and no one else was available to comment. I emphasized to several people at the company the importance of the story and the need for it to respond to what the analyst said. Still, no one returned my calls.

The next day, after the story ran, the PR person left a nasty voice mail for me, questioning my journalistic integrity and why I felt the need to write such a story. I replied back with my own voice mail explaining to him that my story was based on what sources had told me. The conversation degenerated from there into name calling on both sides.

Such an adversarial relationship continues from time to time here at Talking Biz News. For the past 18 months, a business news organization has not talked to me after a blog item ran that was based on original reporting of its market share. They wanted me to run the blog post by them before I posted it. They also accused me of getting the data from their competitor. After they gave me the cold shoulder, I proceeded to spend the next six months posting identical blog items about its market share, updated with the latest data — which I emphasized in the blog posts came from neither the company nor its competitor to prove my point.

That adversarial relationship continues today with this business news organization, which I find ironic. I think my reporting of that business news organization is better because of it. I don’t have to worry about the PR people calling me and trying to spin the message.

I’m not here to say that an adversarial relationship between business journalists and public relations professionals is the preferred mode of operation. I would much rather prefer to work with PR people in a professional manner, and 99 percent of my relationships with PR people have been just that.

But when an adversarial relationship is needed, I find it to be a necessary tool in the business journalist’s arsenal. I would expect the same from PR people if they too felt abused.