HACK ATTACK: To work with journalists, first understand the two things that motivate them

Sometimes people ask me what makes journalists tick and I tell them this.

There are two things that make a journalist tick. 

Fear and ego make a reporter tick. 

I can say this cast-iron fact after 20 years as a reporter and answering media queries.  

Fear because they are under pressure. The pressure is to get the story, fill the paper, post to Facebook or fill the bulletin. Above the journalist is a news editor and above them is the editor. Editors often tend in my experience to be somewhat psychotic and as the saying goes ‘sh-t rolls down hill’.  

Fear because they don’t want to miss the next story. A relationship between reporter and comms person could be the length of a phonecall or it could be something more cultivated that stretches weeks and months.

One of the first lessons I learned as a reporter was that in a small town paths will cross. Be fair with people even in a critical knocking story and they’ll be fine.

If you’re the contact for a project that’s likely to be exciting, worthwhile and newsy then the fear is that they’ll miss out. The reporter won’t want to burn that relationship.

Ego because they want the front page bulletin leading story. They want the scoop that everyone else is chasing. It could be something that’s landed in their lap or it could be something that they’ve worked on for days, weeks, months or years. 

Fear and ego are so important.

I say all this with absolute love, affection and professional respect. It’s was what I thought when I was a reporter and what I still think now.

Very often people are dismissive of the role journalists play and that’s a big mistake. True circulation is down and there are other games in town. But Ofcom data during COVID showed how a crisis, people turned to content shaped by a journalist be that in print, online, on TV or radio. Even 75 per cent of under 24s were getting their COVID news from a trusted news source.

We overlook the reporter – comms relationship at our absolute peril. How we consume news has changed but what motives a reporter fundamentally hasn’t changed. Understanding what makesa reporter tick helps with this relationship.

A common mistake

I can understand why some comms teams insist the reporter email the query. But by doing this you are not doing as much as you can to build a relationship. Recently, I heard a Reach plc editor talk about how she would agree to give more time to a PR officer to get a response if the reporter had a good relationship with them. That doesn’t surprise me. Fear and ego? They don’t want to burn that relationship for fear they’d need it again in the future.  

Isn’t it all about changing the world for a reporter? No, I tell them. It isn’t. It may be at the start but once they’re working in a professional environment fear and ego are the day-to-day influences. You’re not going to save the world if you’ve got an angry news editor shouting at you. 

If you understand what makes a journalist tick you’ll know better how to approach the relationship.   

I run ESSENTIAL MEDIA RELATIONS workshops to help communications people work with journalists.

Picture credit: Wikimedia commons by Lee Bey. Chuck Neubauer in the old Chicago Sun-Times newsroom in 1998.

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