Publicists Anonymous

Illustration by Esther Wu

Five top PR executives, from five industries, tell CJR in their own words what they really think of journalists.

 

Auto Industry

On driving good coverage: Spin is not about untruth, it’s about bias. I view journalism as a noble profession. I feel a responsibility to come to journalists with credibility, facts, and data. But, of course, I also come with a bias for my company. The way I work, the more information and access we provide, the better chance we have of getting more column inches or more minutes in a piece.

On relationships: A lot of my work comes down to my relationships with specific journalists. When journalists are under pressure—when they’re moving fast and making quick decisions about what to believe and what information to value—I want to be one of their first calls. The journalists I work with know that I’ll give them the truth. It’ll be biased, but I’m not going to lie to them.

On mitigating damage: In a contentious situation, I won’t give access to the media at all. You’re going to hear from a member of the communications team. You’re going to get the statement that we have aligned on inside of the company, usually with legal, and that’s it.

On journalism metrics: The more reporters are graded on clicks or dwell time, the less deep our conversations become. One reporter told me that anything he writes about the auto industry needs to have either “Tesla” or “Uber” in the headline, even if the story has nothing to do with those companies. It’s making the reporting a lot more one-dimensional.

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Silicon Valley

On accountability: With social media, a lot of companies assume there’s not as much need for the press. They have a direct line to their audience and can blast out whatever they want. But I think that that’s wrong headed, because you need to show that your company holds up to scrutiny and that your leaders are willing to face questions. Without that, you don’t have credibility.

On advocacy: Most journalists are not trying to take pot shots at your company. I try to remember that journalists are not my adversary. They’re advocates for their readers and the public. Frankly, it can be useful to have journalists here as a proxy for consumers, asking questions and pushing back on things.

On caution: There are two sides to tech journalism. There’s the “Gee whiz” function, you know, look at this product, isn’t this technology fascinating. But there’s also the cautionary role journalists can play, saying, “Hey, this technology could have serious implications that we need to consider.” If you look over the past couple of years, I think most people, even in my profession, would say the press has been very helpful in raising some of these issues.

 

Fast Food

On journalism as a filter: Journalists are a means to an end. My job is not to communicate with journalists, it’s to communicate through them.

On spin: If I did and said nothing, my assumption is that coverage would be 100 percent negative. The onus is on us to have an ongoing cadence of positive communication. When bad coverage comes, though, there’s no spinning the truth. Journalists know when they’re being spun. In the corporate boardroom, we have to guard against convincing ourselves that we’ve come up with some clever framing that is going to fool people.

On metrics: The V-word for journalists used to be “value.” What’s valuable for our readers to know? What do we, as guardians, have a responsibility to put forward? The V-word today is “views.” How many people clicked on this article? How many people shared it? A company expects bad coverage from time to time, but the focus on clicks results in a crazy over-index of stories about something bizarre that happened in one of our stores because it was easy to write up. Is this really where the focus should be?

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Mayor’s Office

On translation: The most accurate way to describe my job is as a translator between what the government is doing how the public consumes information. I spend a lot of my time trying to understand what reporters are thinking or feeling about a certain thing—and then trying to convince reporters what is or isn’t newsworthy.

On credibility: First and foremost, I need to be credible. I think young people in this profession, when they’re getting bad coverage, their instinct is to deny everything. But that’s a bad instinct. I’m on the public dollar. And I have to deal with the same group of reporters on 20 stories a day for as far out as I can see. It’s wrong to lie to reporters. But it would also be a stupid tactic, because within days nobody would trust me, and they’d stop reporting what I say.

On relationships: There are moments in this job when I really need reporters to believe me on something, when I need to say, “Just trust me. I can’t explain, but that thing you think is happening is not happening.” In those moments, reporters are going to judge me based on my history with them. If I don’t have good relationships, if I don’t have credibility with reporters, I’m going to be up a creek.

On negative coverage: The government certainly has its share of screw-ups, but if you were to read newspapers, watch TV, or listen to radio all week, you would come away with the impression that the government is really bad at what we do, and that’s not true. This is partially our fault, but it’s also the result of this poorly incentivized media culture that rewards driving outrage and interest online. Reporters like that instantaneous feeling of, “Oh, I’ve caught the government doing this bad thing and I hope everybody retweets it because this is a really sexy ‘get’ for me,” when a full telling of the story, with context, might be a lot less provocative.

 

Hollywood

On crisis management: The days of PR folks running around this city killing stories are over. There’s no guy out there chewing a cigar, screaming and yelling. That doesn’t work. When you’re going through the shit, you’ve just got to pummel the journalist with facts and make them work as hard as they possibly can. Make them read you every sentence, every word, and argue with them over every line, until they almost give up.

On lies: The lie I hate the most from journalists is the bait-and-switch, when the story they tell me they’re writing is nothing like the final result. But that’s harder to get away with these days. I talk with the other studios all the time. If I get a call and someone says, “Have you talked to this jackass? He just pulled this on me,” I think, “Okay, I don’t talk to that journalist anymore. Easy.”

On symbiosis: There’s a stigma that journalists only want to write bad things. But in entertainment, some publications’ whole livelihoods are based on a thriving TV and film industry. We know they want to write great things, so I can always pitch them on exclusive profiles with stars or executives.

On knowledge: Some journalists are lazy. But I work my ass off to know how this industry works. So to have a journalist call me who’s supposed to write about my company but doesn’t know the nuts and bolts of it—like the relationship between the studios and the theaters—is crazy. I had a reporter spell our CEO’s name wrong in a profile. Print edition. Spells the name wrong, chairman of the fucking studio. What?

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Andrew McCormick is an independent journalist and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, the South China Morning Post, and more. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.