6 questions PRs ask journalists that are guaranteed to annoy

This is a guest post by Steve McComish, MD at Motive PR and a former national news journalist who spent six years fielding PR stories at the Daily Mirror before setting up his agency in 2008. Here, he gives his insights into the six questions PRs ask journalists that could actually be damaging your chances of coverage.

Journalists are busy people and as PRs we should aim to make their lives easier, not more difficult. Having sat on both sides of the desk I am aware of the pressures both sets of professionals face and there are certain behaviours and questions that I always tell my team to avoid if they are to maximise their chances of coverage. So here are six questions that we as PRs should never, ever ask journalists.

1) Did you get my press release?
Sadly this is a question which many inexperienced PRs still ask journalists every day. It gives away a lack of understanding of how journalists and media outlets work and the pressures writers are under every day. If you find yourself tempted to ask this question take a deep breath and pause. Think for a moment about what life is really like for the person on the other end of the phone/email. Imagine, if you can, how many press releases are sent to their outlet each and every day. Ask yourself how well do you know them and more importantly, how well do they know you? Are they likely to remember your name above the other hundreds or maybe thousands of people who have pitched in a story in the past week or month? As a journalist, being on the receiving end of this question is a total turn-off. It causes your heart to sink through your stomach and hot phlegm to rise up your throat. The obvious answer is ‘What press release?’ but can you blame them if they just hang-up the phone?

2) Can my client see your questions ahead of the interview?
If your client is Lord Sugar then this question is just about permissible. If you’re representing Prince Harry and Meghan, then it might just fly. But for everyone else, forget it. Why should they give your client a preview of their questions? They are journalists, not ad sales people. Let them do their job. As PRs, we should already have a good idea of the likely line of questioning and we should already have a well-prepared client. Trying to control an interested journalist like this is another turn off and could easily lead them to reconsider their decision to feature your client. But if he’s Lord Sugar, you might get away with it.

3) Can we have copy approval?
This is another question which comes from a lack of understanding of the media/PR dynamic and stems once again from an attempt to control and manipulate the journalist. Therefore it’s almost certain to leave them fuming and asking their aghast colleagues, ‘Can you believe the cheek of that PR?’ Like the question above, it could work if your client is so important the journalist doesn’t feel able to say no but it certainly isn’t the way to build trust and create a long lasting and mutually beneficial relationship. If that is your goal then once again your focus should be on preparing your client well and letting the journalist do their job. If you want copy approval, buy an advert.

4) What day will you run it?
I used to get asked this a lot in the early days of my career when I worked on an evening newspaper in a provincial city. The implication was, ‘I don’t buy the paper so you need to tell me when I’ll be in so I can make an exception that day’.

The truth is journalists usually don’t know if or when something will run. Their job is to file copy and move on to the next story. As PRs we should be all over our target media every day and we should have alerts set for clients so we don’t miss anything. It’s ok to ask for a heads-up, but don’t expect them to know exactly when a piece will run or what kind of treatment their seniors will give the story. Which leads me nicely onto the next question…

5) What page will it be on?
Another classic question I used to get asked a lot when I worked in newspapers. Much less relevant today but journalists still get asked all kinds of questions about how a story will be treated. What will the headline be? Will it be a substantial feature or just a short snippet? What photos will be used? The truth is, they don’t know and bothering them with meaningless questions like this is just going to annoy and damage the relationship.

6) Can I have a link please?
Okay, we’ve all been guilty of this one, myself included. In the early days of the internet it was ok to ask outright/beg for a link but now it’s becoming more and more of a no-no. Those of us engaged in digital PR must find more creative ways to earn links for our clients. This means creating content that encourages the media to link to the client’s website.

Usually that content will expand on the story offered in the media release and present the journalist with something they can’t resist linking to – something which offers their readers greater depth of understanding, experience, education or entertainment. Earning these links is an exciting challenge for us and one which makes the role of a PR in 2020 so much fun. So stop begging for links and start earning them instead. Journalists will love you for it.