Opinion Leading Journalist copy is not PR

You have the right to remain silent… said the journalist to the subject matter expert, marketing department and PR team.

An interesting scenario cropped up on my LinkedIn feed recently, and it involves an exchange every journalist and PR team will know well.

An experienced freelance journalist who writes across national and trade media including the BBC, The Guardian, Business Insider, Retail Week, and Marketing Week shared an interaction between her and a PR agency while trying to line up an interview.

The response from the PR agency representing a (nameless) client was:
“We have discussed it internally, but at the moment we don’t see the added value of cooperating if we can’t read the piece first.”

We’ve all been in that position as PR professionals – managing the expectations of a keen client subject matter expert and marketing department, who want to control the output from the interview that’s just taken place. Or they are fretting over the other scenario, the piece is published and the subject matter expert takes issue with the result – either because they feel their company message isn’t correctly presented or they may have spoken out of turn and are fearing the wrath of their corporate comms team!

We are of course dealing with Opinion Leading Journalists – to be remembered that they are not called this for nothing! And getting overly forceful with a journalist about reviewing the copy may curtail the chance of coverage for the business in question or, even worse, sour a relationship with a journalist that may have taken months of careful nurturing.

What do you have the right to review?

Research backs up this opposing view of PR teams and journalists. Press Gazette and PR Week ran parallel polls to their respective audiences of journalist and PR professionals. The results found that nearly 80% of journalists never give copy approval or only give it in extreme circumstances. Conversely over half of PR professionals said they would either always or exceptionally ask for copy approval from journalists they had worked with.

While there are no legal guidelines around reviewing copy for publishing, journalistic standard practice, particularly in the UK and North America is not to offer a review of copy – or to offer a copy for fact checking only. There are some other cultural nuances with reviewing copy, particularly in the DACH region of Europe, where standard practice is to usually offer quoted parties the chance to “authorize” copy – but even this has received pushback in the past.

Consider this from Sifted (start-ups podcast affiliated with the Financial Times) editor Michael Stothard when speaking to Journalism.co.uk: “If you show it to them, it’s basically an invitation for them to try and change the content. And if you are going to let a subject change a piece about them, then you are not really doing journalism anymore but straight PR.”

It’s third-party endorsement, not Pay to Play or Cash for Coverage

WSJ sets the standard – the more horizontal the publication, the less input you get

The general rule of thumb we abide by at IBA is that the larger the publication you are dealing with then the less likely you are to get an opportunity to review – e.g.national level, high level business or technology outlets. Consider a recent example where IBA had facilitated an interview on the future of in store payments between the CIO of our automotive software client and a journalist from the Wall Street Journal. The only review opportunity was a two-hour window to fact check a few bullet points on job title and company/product information – then the copy was quickly published.

Fact checking OK

There are certain concessions when dealing with more specialist industry or scientific publications – due to the detailed nature of topics discussed. For example, when placing in a horticulture journal for our Agritech client our team and their subject matter expert were given proof copies of article to review to ensure scientific information had been correctly represented. Likewise, we have experienced this for industry magazines, such as Aerospace & Defense, where subject matter experts often receive copy for fact checking and review. Still, this is not an open invitation to edit the copy and a journalist will see through any extensive changes.

Prep interviewees

The best way to exercise control over the output of a journalist interview is to put the preparation in:

  • Ensure your SMEs, customer or partners are comfortable speaking to the media and understand the repercussions: This means ensuring executives are properly media trained prior to the interview and, and if they are speaking at an open forum or event, aware that anything they say with journalists in attendance will be used on the record.
  • Arm them with briefing documents: Before any interview IBA will provide a comprehensive journalist briefing document for the interviewee. It’s just a one-pager – not a novel so no excuse for busy execs to say no time to read – of background notes on the messaging to be used in the interview, any pre-drafted questions, other recent output from the journalist, and background on their publication.
  • If you’re still unsure of what to say, or what not: Then consult the IBA ten golden rules of speaking to the press parts one, two and three!

It’s editorial not advertorial

Remember, editorial interviews are not a content marketing exercise – they cannot be managed down to the minute detail. But a prominent feature piece in a target national, business, technology or industry publication is one of the biggest third-party validators to make your company expertise live and truly demonstrate market leadership.

Just ensure you have a well-defined message, a strong PR team to help facilitate the interview, and a confident executive – and you’ll never have to overstep the line once the article appears.

Long live PR and journalistic integrity!

Jamie Kightley is Head of Client Services at IBA International

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