I guess the excitement of seeing your name in print day after day or week after week, combined with the power you yield to make or break a person, or business or save a rare spotted swamp frog from extinction, gives reporters a false sense of their own importance.
Ego, it is said, grows in direct proportion to byline frequency. It’s most often seen among writers who expect the world to know exactly who they are, who they write for and pay them the respect they believe is due to them, and woe betide those who don’t.
I know; I left the heady world of bylines ego enhancement about 15 years ago and now I operate from the ‘dark side’.
In fact I am proud to be one of the public relations professionals – spin doctors if you like – who globally provides reporters with up to 70 percent of what is published in newspapers and magazines and broadcast on radio and TV news.
But unlike some journalists, I don’t get on my high horse when some wandering reporter arrives half an hour late at my press conference, dressed for the beach, or in clothes that look as if they have been slept in, totally clueless about what is going on, hoping that at best there may be a t-shirt, branded cap or free cup of coffee and blueberry muffin in the offing.
So I am a little puzzled by the articles which appear in rotation almost as regularly as those lazy ‘expose’s’ on prostitution, or ‘life with a drug addict’ in which various writers take swipes at public relations professionals who apparently do not know who they are or how very important they are or for which rag they write.
Get a life
For goodness sake: if you are a crime writer and you get a press release about a new knitting pattern trash it and move on. If you work for Life and some brain dead PR sends you a release about death trash it and move on. Use it or lose it. Life is too short.
Spend your time looking for a real story instead of reverting to another sadly clichéd rant about the ‘ignorant’ PeeAre who (God help us) does not know who you are or who you write for or exactly how very important you are.
Of course public relations practitioners who take the time to get to know the publications and their writers at whom they aim their press releases will have greater success for their clients than those who do not.
Simple economics will rule.
The former, those who take the trouble to do their research and show respect to their intended audience, will stay in business and those who don’t won’t.
And while I am on the subject, allow me to mention, in passing, my dismay at how many ‘reporters’ have called me to ask me to write a story for them to which they will put their byline. (“I need my name in the paper and I don’t really have a story”, one wag wailed.)
I could also mention how frustrating it is to deal with so many reporters who simply do not bother pay attention and who write stories that are not only inaccurate but harmful to people and damaging to business.
Not because the people they write about are or bad or have done bad things but simply because the writer concerned was either too lazy, or simply couldn’t care less and too slipshod to check the facts.
Early on in my 20-year career as a journalist I sent a crime story to the news desk. A few minutes later the news editor called me to his desk and to my great humiliation, in front of my colleagues, made a great display of tearing the story into pieces and chucking it into the bin. (FYI: in the days before computers we used typewriters to write on paper).
“If you can’t spell the name Dlamini correctly,” he screamed at me, “how the hell can I trust any other facts in your story?”
Not too many stories with facts unchecked are torn up today judging by the regular inaccuracy there is in reporting.
As far as press releases are concerned: in those days we were handed a press release and told to do our own story. These days being a reporter more often than not it seems, requires sending a few questions to a PR, and then simply doing a quick cut ‘n’ paste (add byline) and send to the news desk.
I love it, my clients love it – they get to see their name in lights – and I get paid, but is it journalism? I think not!
So there you have it. PRs make mistakes and so do reporters.
And we both have access to the trash and to mirrors; we need to use them more often. “I am not that important, the story is,” we could say to ourselves then sit down and decide to check the facts, develop a story or to drag the press release to the trash. It’s that simple.
A far better idea, I propose, is that we work together.
If Nick Davies, the author of Flat Earth News is correct, and PRs do provide up to 70 percent of what’s new (news), it’s clear that both can benefit from a supportive relationship rather than one of animosity.
I was in the news business as a reporter for close to 20 years; I have been in the PR business almost as long. Were I to go back to journalism I know I would be a lot more, and I mean a whole lot more, responsible about what I write and the impact it could have.
From the dark side, I have seen too often the harm that a poorly researched, badly written story can do to a person, and to a business.
Sometimes the damage is irreparable.
Journalists wield a power that many are not aware of. That power can hurt or it can help. And it’s not ever about ego; it must always be about the story.
Had the Watergate duo or Chris Roper and the late Mandy Rossouw spent their time polishing their egos and slagging off PRs instead of doing research into real stories we would never have had Watergate, bring down a President nor the revelation of Jacob Zuma and the ANC’s wanton abuse of power at Nkandla.
A far more positive approach would be for journalists to learn to respect that there are PR professionals who act professionally and there are those who don’t.
Ditto with writers, reporters and journalists.
There are those who research, write and check their facts and write responsibly and there are those who spend their time wearing dirty laundry, arriving late and ill-informed for appointments, dragging their knuckles from one PR event to another search of freebies.
So I appeal to people who practice my profession: be professional, do your homework and show some respect to the writers and publications at which you aim your (press release) story.
And I appeal to the scribes: pay attention, do your homework, check your facts and show some respect for what can be a consistent source of some really good hard news and feature stories.
And let’s get down to the work at hand doing what we can do to improve our lives and the lives of the people with whom we share the planet – be that as a PR spinning a story to suit an objective with integrity, or as a journalist striving to tell it like it is.
That after all, is all that there really is to it.
My 10 tips for journalists:
1) Pay attention;
2) Forget your ego, focus on the facts;
3) Check the facts;
4) Pay attention;
5) Forget your ego, focus on the facts;
6) Check the facts;
7) Pay attention;
8) Forget your ego, focus on the facts;
9) Check the facts; and
10) Pay attention.
* Evelyn John Holtzhausen is the former Durban, London and Cape Bureau Chief and specialist writer of the Sunday Times. He also is the former Night Editor, Deputy Editor and columnist of the Cape Times. Evelyn co-founded HWB Communications in 1997, of which he is now and director and CEO.