OPINION: Evelyn John Holzhausen moved from being a top newspaper editor to a sought-after PR. He writes about the dynamic tension between these two sides of media.
More years ago than I care to remember, when I was Cape editor of the Sunday Times, I’d often receive a call from ‘head office’ in Johannesburg requesting a follow-up on a tip-off or rumour that some celebrity or other had been seen swanning around Cape Town.
“We heard that Michael Jackson wants to buy Sol Kerzner’s Leeukoppie Estate, check it out,” or “Mick Jagger has been seen at the Pink Lady” or “Princess Di is in Cape Town, get the story.”
I did not mix in circles where conversations involving Jackson, Jagger or Princess Di could be overheard but I knew an extremely well connected PR who did.
I would call her and she would confirm the rumour, sometimes provide a contact number, or quash it. Always in strict confidence, she gave me more front-page bylines and inside-page leads than anyone else in Cape Town.
In return, I would attempt to place a press release from her public relations company in the paper – given the sacrosanct rule that it was only accepted on its merit as news. It also meant that, from time to time, I would accept an invitation to attend one of her client functions.
It was a mutually beneficial relationship – I got the headlines and her clients got to see their names in print.
She was one of many contacts I developed in the PR industry, contacts who gave me insight into social circles in Cape Town, stories to follow-up on and, when I became assistant editor of the Cape Times, great news stories to pass on to the newsdesk.
It was a relationship based on trust, integrity and a deep understanding of each other’s roles. The relationship allowed me to get the first quote from sources, while other reporters only got a crisp “no comment”.
Years later, I changed jobs and became a PR myself.
I made it my business to stay in contact with my colleagues on the papers and in radio. This gave me rare access to the media, which other PRs did not share.
I was careful, however, never ever to exploit this relationship by asking former colleagues to run stories about my clients as a favour. I kept to the strict rule that any story I sent to a former colleague had to be news that would be of interest to their readers.
Again, it was a relationship based on mutual respect, integrity and trust. Only once was that trust broken. It was when I shared the “inside” story on a controversial issue with an editor. I told him under no circumstances was I to be revealed as the source of the information. He agreed.
However, a few minutes after I returned to my office, I received a call from a reporter on that newspaper, repeating what I had told his editor in confidence, and asking me to confirm the story. I told him, in very short, sharp terms that I knew nothing. Of course, I never trusted that editor again.
Years later, having played for both sides, crossing from the bright, hard news side of the street to the ‘dark side’ of PR, I find it strange that I have so few trusted relationships with journalists.
Of course, when I have a great news story to tell, there are reporters and editors I will call. But that’s a contact built on necessity, rather than the result of a symbiotic relationship of mutual trust and understanding.
There are a number of reasons for that.
One is that newsrooms have shrunk. Reporters are so busy rushing from one story to the next they hardly have time to develop relationships. I, too, am often too busy to take time to chew the fat with a newsroom contact. We exchange emails, pass on compliments when we believe a story has been particularly well done, or simply try to help reporters and broadcasters fill the space they have to fill, day after day, with people to interview, pertinent comment on stories or content which is relevant to their audiences.
When we do meet reporters eye to eye, it is more often than not at a press briefing or an event to which they have been invited and for which we want coverage.
The shortage of newsroom staff also means there are fewer reporters on ‘beats’. In the old days, there used to be crime reporters, municipal reporters, social reporters, court reporters, political reporters and so on. These days, the lines are blurred, with reporters doing stories on a range of topics from environment to entertainment and crime all in one busy day.
This makes it more difficult to nurture a particular writer as a contact for specific stories. There are focused financial writers, environmental reporters and those based in parliament writing politics, for example, but they are few and our clients and their needs are many.
It is also true that PR agencies, such as my own, regularly hire former journalists to write for us, moving us from the news pages often to features and op ed pages. There our relationship is with editors and editorial decision makers rather than with reporters.
And as the landscape changes increasingly from print to digital, from press releases to the provision of content that can be placed across various platforms, so the relationship between the bright side of the road and the “other side” in the general run of things has changed.
The healthy tension that has always been inherent in the relationship between PR, (professionals paid to protect and promote their clients) and journalists bent on exposure and revelation is still there. And it is well and good for journalists to treat spin doctors with a healthy dose of scepticism and check the facts for themselves.
But reporters cut off their noses to spite their faces if they don’t see the benefit in having a healthy list of trusted spin-doctor contacts to call for insight, an off-the-record fact, a behind-the-scenes briefing or simply to confirm or deny.
Research shows PR provides up to 70% of the content of newspapers. This flows from press releases, tweets and conversations and tip-offs. Clever reporters nurture their PR contacts for great stories, as much as PRs exploit their media contacts for great placement.
It’s a healthy relationship that exists, and will always exist as long as there are those who are paid to protect and promote and there are those paid to probe, expose and exploit. And it changes as much as it remains the same.
Evelyn John Holtzhausen, a former Sunday Times bureau chief, assistant editor of the Cape Times and newspaper columnist, is founder and CEO of HWB Communications.
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