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How Well Does Your Utility Know the Journalists Covering It?

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Andy Gotlieb's picture
Managing Editor of a specialty publication, former public relations practitioner Freelancer

I hold 32 years of experience in communications, mostly in journalism, with a decade in public relations, too. The first 17 years were spent in print journalism, where I covered, at various...

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Journalists and public relations practitioners are more akin to oil and water than chocolate and peanut butter.

I’ve worked on both sides of the equation and can relay multiple stories about people frustrated with that other side. On the PR side, the question usually is: What exactly do reporters and editors want? (A secondary question might be: How do you provide that?)

Let’s start by exploring just exactly who journalists are, including their background and mental makeup, as a way of securing more coverage for your utility.

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Journalists often are an unusual bunch, especially on the print size – I’ve been in more than one newsroom described as “the Island of Misfit Toys” from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Most weren’t part of the cool crowd in either high school or college (and I resemble that remark). TV folks are a bit different since looks are important, but that often hides an introverted, introspective side.

Yet journalists tend to be smart, naturally curious and, most of all, savvy. By nature, journalists are going to be skeptical and sarcastic and not believe the glowing prose in your utility’s press releases.

Many are either recent college graduates – the idealistic, “I’m going to change the world” types -- or older “lifers” well into middle age or beyond. There’s often an age gap because journalists in their child-bearing and child-raising years realize they can make more money in public relations or find an unrelated job that pays better.

There are pros and cons to both types of reporters. The young ones will be inexperienced and mistake-prone, but energetic. Older journalists know the drill yet will be jaded. Approach each kind of journalist differently, catering to their strengths.

There is one misperception I’d like to address: Most journalists are not out to play “gotcha.” The great bulk of reporters and editors are more interested in telling a good story both accurately and fairly. And utilities have stories beyond good earnings reports and meaningless awards to tell, but that’s for a different blog post.

Also note that journalists are a lot busier than in past years past. Budget cuts have left skeleton staffs at many outlets, and there seemingly are more pitches, emails, press releases, media packets and social media interaction than ever.

That means you need to be selective in who and what you pitch; don’t become the PR person who “cries wolf” or blankets reporters with lame pitches.

In addition, with the exception of the utility trade press, you’re probably dealing with journalists are generalists. They likely have little knowledge of your utility or the overall industry, so you have to start at ground level without being patronizing.

What’s the takeaway from all this?

Perhaps it’s that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach that your utility can take to public relations. And perhaps it’s to know “the enemy.”

Andy Gotlieb's picture
Thank Andy for the Post!
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