Working with Reporters

You Are Helping Them, Not The Other Way Around.

By Thomas J. Roach

Quarries have a history of bad relationships with local news publications. Often it seems that the publication is deliberately ignoring or misrepresenting the quarry.

The first thing to understand about working with reporters is that you are helping them, not the other way around.

If a reporter wants to do a story and you have information that is useful, then provide it and maybe your organization gets mentioned in the story. Getting mentions builds name recognition and eventually reputation, and reputation ultimately translates into profits. It is a slow, organic process.

Business communications people who don’t get this think they can give a reporter positive information about the organization and have it printed.

If the reporter or editor is uncooperative, the business communicator might make an argument like “we really need you to do this.” When that fails they complain about the publication and the incompetence of its staff.

The complaining option seems to work, because it is done through word-of-mouth with other people who work at the quarry or who are friends who have nothing at stake in the matter except alienating you if they disagree. So everyone nods their heads and seems to agree.

Key to Understanding
The key to understanding this relationship with local reporters is realizing that they are independent, and their main motivation for writing a story is to write something that their readers will want to read. If they start shilling for businesses that are in conflict with their readers, then their readers will figure it out and stop frequenting their publications.

This same process is at work when a conflict arises between the quarry and community groups over issues like zoning or the use of explosives or daily pumping of millions of gallons of water out of the water table.

A reporter might call and ask, “Why are all the wells running dry?” If the answer is, “We are draining water out of the quarry,” then that is the answer you have to give.

“I don’t know,” is a wrong answer. It will cause the reporter to investigate and do interviews with official sources and neighbors and legislators, and a series of stories will ensue making the quarry look like it is taking advantage of the community, which would result in the reputation of the publication being strengthened and the reputation of the quarry being weakened.

“Look, we really don’t need to be bothered with this story right now. We provide a lot of jobs for the community, and families with members who work at the quarry will be hurt, so why don’t you just write about something else,” is also a wrong answer. This asks the newspaper to be a coconspirator in a cover-up. Newspapers love cover-ups, but mostly because they like to expose them. This response is asking for trouble.

Killing the Story
I was able to kill only one story in my 35-year career. A doctor at a hospital I represented had acted unprofessionally. I met with the newspaper editor and acknowledged everything she knew about the story and told her that if I were her I would probably print it.

After making it absolutely clear that I was not standing in the way of her doing her job, I made my best case for why she might want to not print the story. I said that the hospital deserved to have its reputation tarnished, but the family involved did not, and for their sake, I hoped she would decide to not print it, and she agreed.

It is best to look at newspaper reporters as social forces of nature. Unless you can afford to buy the publication and fire everyone, you cannot stop them from covering a story. Once you realize their reporting is inevitable, then the logical thing to do is to cooperate as much as possible and trust the resulting story will be less damaging than if you held back or tried to mislead them.

News stories are like hurricanes: you prepare for them; you don’t try to stop them. 

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