Love, hate and the press

by ninameetscafe

My current internship puts me on a side of journalism almost opposite to where I started. It’s like I’ve walked through a mirror.

This begins four years ago, when my career goals were angling heavily toward broadcast journalism. I spent much of my academic senior year chasing interviews, recording voice-overs and anchoring the news show. Had I chosen to attend Northwestern University back then, I’d probably still be doing broadcast. My love for our school’s news show would have taken me straight to NU’s Medill School of Journalism, which probably would have led me further into that focus. This is all guesswork, of course, but it deeply clarifies the difference between then and now. My time in broadcast was about finding stories and amplifying their volume; my time in Public Relations is about making our story the one that’s found.

This makes for an interesting, volatile relationship with the press. We have hundreds of stories in store, born in the simple fact that the Company exists, runs and constantly creates. PR wants to plug these stories into the press outlets facing our audiences. Otherwise, our audiences could miss it. Imagine the chef crafting the dishes daily at your favorite restaurant. If neither you nor any other patron told anyone else about the place, it might not survive. That word of mouth is powerful. Most companies have great use for that word of mouth, and the press is like a heightened form of word of mouth.

Attracting that word of mouth is much more personal than I had thought, though. Ahead of my first press event, one of the main outside PR women with whom we plan campaigns mentioned that she never misses a chance to personally catch up with her people, meaning the writers behind TechCrunch, GamesRadar, IGN. Having been in the business for years, these are people she’s been in contact for equally as long. Later, at the event in question, I found myself chatting with a video games reviewer who wanted to make sure he said Goodbye to her before he headed home. It was a second-half confirmation that PR often relies on that personal connection. The intimacy initially surprised me, but it makes a lot of sense. The biggest companies in the world are still run by individuals, and business runs on relationships. Any product’s best PR agent is likely the one who maintains great relations with the people writing about those products. On the flip side, journalists for any industry have much to gain in a contact that keeps inviting them to exclusive, advance press events.

The fruit of these relationships is the actual coverage, though. PR teams can track coverage through reports that compile excerpts of all of the just-published blog posts, news features and reviews of just-released products or updates. And when I say “just,” I mean it. It’s breathless. I’ve never interacted with news at the pace these reports demand. This industry runs at high velocity, and I can tell because I’m literally collecting pieces published “3 minutes ago” (thank you, Google). It’s a team effort: within the several hours these reports are constructed, we’re all passing along links as they spring forth. The crazy thing is, I’ve already begun recognizing the same journalists’ names, either because I crossed their name off the RSVP list at the event as they checked in, or because they’re clearly the one at their outlet covering our genre of products. In a way, these reports represent a certain control and supervision of the coverage.

But wait, I mentioned “volatile,” right? This aspect of the PR-press relationship is what cements my realization that I am exploring realms far from my first. On my very first day, within minutes of introducing himself and starting to show me around the office, I watched my boss receive and carefully field a call from the New York Times. Over the course of that week and the next, I got the impression that the story was not going to be favorable. People in the Company were bracing for it. Soon enough, I read for myself what without a doubt had caused the internal trepidation. I also got my first glimpse of what it means for a big company to “clean up the mess” of bad press. Furthermore, demonstrating the New York Times’ profound influence on journalism nationwide, similar follow-up articles began showing up in the other major newspapers updated in our lobby each morning. It was surreal to be inside the reported-on, subject’s side of journalism.

This hit me again just this week, because the Company went public about a really huge acquisition, major for the entertainment world. Employees on both sides of the acquisition found out only half an hour before the rest of the world did. Within minutes of the Company’s announcement, my manager and boss were receiving pressure from dozens of timely journalists for more details. Twitter was exploding, and the snowball of online commentary began rolling. The team’s task at that point was to avoid the calls until the top dogs sanctioned an official message for the divisions.

All I could think was: “WHOA. So this is how it works.”

(Also, WHOA, this post got super long!)