Among the many minefields a PR specialist must navigate when conducting media outreach is the delicate task of laying out the conditions under which the journalist can cover a story or interview a client. Even though a client might provide information of value to journalists, it’s easy to scare away the press by imposing an oppressive set of caveats and conditions on coverage, thus ruining the story’s value proposition.
Below are several tips for determining what is generally acceptable to ask of journalists and what is not, written from my perspective as a former tech reporter. (They may be exceptions to these rules of thumb, and of course opinions can differ, but by and large this is a good guide to follow.)
EMBARGOES: It’s perfectly reasonable to place an embargo on a news item that you wish to preview to select reporters as a sneak peek. Just make sure they agree in no uncertain terms to the embargo before sending the news to them, and make sure the exact date and time of the embargo (down to specific time zone) is spelled out.
OFF THE RECORD: The rule is quite simple from a PR perspective. NEVER share anything that you don’t want to see in print. That said, if you trust the reporter and wish to share some confidential information, you MUST ask the journalist if he/she is willing to go off the record BEFORE you spill the beans. Otherwise, whatever you said is fair game. Also, do not confuse “off the record” with “not for attribution.” The latter means that the publication has permission to use the information you provided in the story, as long as they don’t identify you as the source.
SENDING QUESTIONS PRIOR TO INTERVIEW: This is a request that reporters will often comply with, though some top-tier outlets may balk at the idea, especially if their story is intended to be negative or controversial. (After all, they’re not looking to show their hand and give PR agencies time to craft polished responses.) For straightforward or positive stories, there is usually little resistance; still, don’t expect the question list to be comprehensive. Your client will almost assuredly get tossed some additional queries that didn’t make the official list, and you must always anticipate the potential for spontaneous follow-up questions.
REVIEWING THE ARTICLE IN ADVANCE OF PUBLICATION: Many publications are loath to agree to this stipulation, seeing it as an affront to journalistic integrity and a form of corporate censorship. As PR specialists, we want to try to shape the journalist’s story and accentuate the positive as best as we can. But the trick is to do that BEFORE the article is written. If necessary, it may be acceptable to ask the reporter to review any direct quotes from your client prior to publication in order to ensure they have been conveyed accurately.
ARTICLE CORRECTIONS & ALTERATIONS: If you find an error in a story about your client, you are most certainly entitled (if not expected) to alert the reporter and request a correction. But to avoid getting on a journalist’s bad side, don’t ask reporters to rewrite content for more self-serving reasons, like adding promotional/website links to stories or suggesting alternative phrasing that you think positions the company in a better light. In essence, you don’t want to tell members of the media how to do their job.