Stan Hinden, retired Washington Post financial writer and columnist wrote, during my 50 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist, I have known hundreds of public relations people. Some were a joy to work with; others a nightmare. Indeed, as I look back, I can see clear differences between those who were good at their jobs and those who were not.
Those who succeeded, I believe, did so because they followed the Ten Golden Rules of Public Relations:
Rule One: Treat reporters with respect. They have a job to do. When they call with questions, give them the information they need without hassle. If the subject is complicated, put the reporter in touch with a specialist who can explain it. Return reporters’ phone messages promptly. Deadlines won’t wait. Be especially patient with reporters who are new to your beat.
Rule Two: Learn to be candid. It has many benefits. Candor can disarm even the most suspicious of reporters. All too often, PR people go into a defensive crouch when a reporter calls. This reaction simply tells reporters that they are right to be suspicious and they may bypass you in the future. It makes far more sense to be open and upfront with reporters. That will help you win their respect and even trust.
Rule Three: Treat all reporters equally. Don’t give a reporter the brush-off because he or she represents a small publication or is a free-lancer. The scribe from the Podunk Gazette whom you ignore today is likely to be calling you tomorrow from the New York Times. Reporters have long memories.
Rule Four: Get the authority to do your job. If you are to be the public face or voice of your organization, your bosses must give you the power to discuss company affairs without fear of second-guessing. When a spokesperson has clout, it shows.
Rule Five: Know what you’re talking about. Make a careful study of what goes on in your organization. Get to know the people who run the show and what they do--in great detail. You can’t give reporters a clear picture of your business if you don’t understand it yourself.
Rule Six: Suggest story ideas. Reporters appreciate ideas for future stories—especially if they are newsworthy and you can supply both the information and the contacts. But don’t try to control the writing of the story. The reporter is going to put his or her own stamp on it.
Rule Seven: Don’t ever say: “No Comment.” That is an admission of defeat. There is always a better way to respond. Saying “no comment” is like telling a reporter: “We’re not going to tell you what you want to know. We’ve got a secret. We dare you to find it out.” Reporters don’t like dares and will find it out from someone else; perhaps to your regret.
Rule Eight: Don’t talk “off the record.” If, for some reason, you can’t be quoted by name, ask the reporter if it is OK to talk on a background, or non-attribution basis. That means that the reporter is free to use the information and you will be not identified, except perhaps as an unnamed source. This allows you to get your story out without being quoted directly. While it is not the best way to operate, it avoids the confusion of what “off the record” really means.
Rule Nine: Prepare for crisis. Do some “what-if” role playing in advance. In the Age of Enron, there seems to be no limit on the ways that organizations can get into trouble. If it happens to you, remember the basic rule of crisis management: Get your story out first. And make sure everybody understands that, “Nobody wants to fix this more than we do.”
Rule Ten: Don’t forget the first nine rules.
Stan Hinden, a retired Washington Post financial writer and columnist, is the author of “How To Retire Happy. The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire.” (McGraw-Hill. 2nd Ed. 2006.)