When PR people and journalists collide

I spent my summer as a PR intern, so I get how PR people feel about protecting the brand or organization that they represent. I understand that they want to give you the story they want you to have, rather than the story that is more journalistically relevant.

But, until this week, I hadn’t experienced PR people who were totally unwilling to work with journalists.

On the most recent 4804 story I completed I had several less-than-pleasant run ins with PR people from various organizations.

In one instance, I called the person at a certain Big 12 University who I knew would have the information I needed. I wasn’t even looking to interview him. I just needed some data for an infographic I was working on. He referred me to the media relations director, who then had to go back to the original source to get the numbers to me. Then media relations director then forgot to get a piece of information I had requested, so she had to go back to original source again. In total, this was a nine phone call transaction that could have been solved with one.

I understand that this University’s policy is that all calls must go through this woman, but it seems like a waste of everybody’s time on a matter of five numbers.

When I was trying to obtain the number of patents from another Big 12 University, they told me they were unsure if they could give me this information.

From a PR perspective, they should want me to have this information. If they don’t (and for the record, they didn’t) provide me with those numbers, I have to report that they were unavailable. That looks bad on their university, because it would appear that they don’t have a lot of patents (which many consider a sign of prestige) or that they are too disorganized to have this information available to the public.

As a journalist, and especially a student journalist, who already has enough trouble getting, authentic, interesting sources to talk to me. It’s frustrating to continually be referred to a public relations person, when I know the person on the phone is the one who I really need to talk to.

I found one way to combat this problem on my last story: I first someone at a Mizzou office to ask them who I should talk to about my story. He referred me to several people, some of whom ended up being sources in my story. I then sent him a thank our email, and told him I had a few big picture questions to clarify and if he could possibly assist me. I ended up getting the interview with him and was able to completely circumvent the communications director of the office who told me, “Too many journalists had been covering this issue and they would not be conducting anymore interviews. And no, there was no one else in another department who could help me.”

Even having a little background in PR, that was one conversation I left feeling very puzzled.

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