Why some reporters are harder to work with than others

A Calculus Problem Solver for Communications

You know the feeling well. An inquiry lands in the press@ inbox and your heart sinks. You haven’t opened the email yet but you know it’s going to suck. Maybe you’ve worked with this reporter before, maybe you haven’t. Maybe you don’t even know who they are! It doesn’t matter. You sigh.

Why do some press inquiries elicit this reaction? What is it about certain reporters that make them so hard to work with?

Running into a difficult reporter may seem like a random occurrence, but it’s relatively predictable. We can use the Reporter Difficulty-Importance Curve to illustrate the relationship between a reporter’s “importance” and how hard it is to work with them.

This was harder to create than I am willing to admit

We measure importance by considering the likely reputational impact to a subject of a reporter publishing a story in their respective outlet. The more likely a reporter can significantly shift the course of a public narrative — positively or negatively — the more “important” they are. Both the reporter’s reputation and their publication’s reputation contribute to their importance.

A reporter’s importance correlates with how hard they are to work with. The more important a reporter, the more likely they are to be difficult. Of course, the less important a reporter, the more likely they are to be difficult too. It’s a confusing rule and an odd distribution, but that’s what makes the graph so fun to draw. (My communications teammates have seen me whiteboard this graph for years.)

The Reporter Difficulty-Importance Curve places media into three groups. Before you can know how to work with any given reporter, you first have to figure out who you’re dealing with.

VALLEY OF BEAT REPORTERDOM

The widest part of the curve, the Valley of Beat Reporterdom represents the symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship forced upon beat reporters and their communications counterparts by circumstance.

Beat reporters are the gist of your daily work and run the publication gamut from Bloomberg to BuzzFeed. Of varied importance and difficulty, it’s a pretty diverse bunch. But overall they have a lot in common — they all have to talk to you, you have to talk to them, and they will be a regular part of your life until they get promoted to the Facebook beat or unexpectedly take a job in the Singapore bureau.

Because the nature of beat reporting requires some amount of access and insight, they are not out to fuck you over, even if you think they are. They will return your calls, politely decline your pitches (including your bad ones, so be grateful), and begrudgingly respect your overly-conservative attribution rules. They will blame crappy headlines on their editor, giving you a common enemy. Sometimes they have problems discerning signal (your company has real, endemic cultural issues) from noise (a quote from an anonymous disgruntled employee), and while you will not always agree with their takes, the majority of their coverage is a decent reflection of reality whether you are willing to admit it or not.

There are outliers of course, but you should consider beat reporters an extension of your work “friends.” Like your day-to-day company colleagues, beat reporters have a vested interest in maintaining a healthy and productive relationship with you because it makes their work better and easier. It makes yours better and easier too! They are just doing their jobs. Don’t burn them.

NATIONAL AUDIENCE MOUNTAIN

Home to 60 Minutes producers, magazine feature writers, zeitgeist illuminati, broadcast network anchors, and Kai Ryssdal (among others), National Audience Mountain is the high-risk, high-reward land of big ratings and bigger headaches. They have earned this distinction over years of work, given their brand, credibility, and large following. Their columns, 5,000 word stories, or eight-minute segments can make or break a company.

In attempting to navigate high-importance, high-difficulty reporters, the usual tricks don’t apply here. Given the breadth of possible subjects they can cover, they won’t need to talk to you again for years after this, if ever. If they screw you and so you blacklist them, what do they care? You will be long forgotten when they’ve moved on to their next piece. Unless you have no choice, never, ever put your life in the hands of a high-importance reporter who has no long-term need for you. All they care about (understandably) is their story’s impact, not you.

At the same time, unlike media on other parts of the curve, you can’t ignore these folks. “[Your company] declined to respond to NBC News” makes you look worse, and Kara Swisher probably has several of your board members on speed dial anyway. Your best shot is some amount of transparency and trust-building. That doesn’t mean immediately granting them an interview with your CEO, but early good-faith cooperation will show you have nothing to hide. Demonstrable self-awareness and contrition (where necessary) are also critical.

Throughout the entire process, never forget the stakes, even when the reporter’s angle appears non-controversial. You should communicate this reality to your colleagues daily to manage expectations. Unfortunately for you, weak Chief Marketing Officers over-rely on earned media for growth and founders love high-beta outcomes, so execs often pressure you to proactively pitch these big-bang outlets without good reason. Proceed with caution.

DELUSIONS OF GRANDEUR CLIFF

Local news consumer affairs reporters, Forbes Network contributors, foxbusiness.com writers — you’ll find them all here on Delusions of Grandeur Cliff, lecturing you about the size of their audience, name-checking where else they’ve been published, and asking repeatedly why you won’t give them ten minutes today with Jack Dorsey. (Come on, all they need is ten minutes, are you really saying he doesn’t have even ten minutes?)

Of low-importance but high difficulty, these reporters are trying to get your attention in a world where they are used to being ignored. Of course, ignoring them isn’t callous or personal — it’s highly logical. If a story is going to be negative, the work necessary to turn it around (lots) will probably far outweigh the impact of its publication (little). And if a story is going to be neutral-to-positive, what do you need to contribute? On a team with limited bandwidth, there’s not much point to engaging.

If you have a larger communications function, one good strategy is to delegate these inquiries to your junior team members. It gives them tangible, low-risk media relations experience, and the reporter gets a response. Everybody wins.

Most communications professionals have awesome stories about reporters in this bucket. In 2012, at the hospital with my wife several hours into labor with twins, a Huffington Post freelancer cursed at me in an email because I had not yet replied to his “URGENT” note from earlier that morning. Fuck that guy.

The Reporter Difficulty-Importance Curve has outliers, of course:

  • Openly hostile beat reporters always confuse the hell out of me. (This is probably an entire post in itself.)
  • Interns and junior staff at national news publications can be extra annoying because they leverage the existing credibility of their organizations’ brands and reach despite not having a track record themselves.
  • Gossip columnists are hard to label because communications people and a columnist’s subject (usually a senior executive) tend to disagree over whether Page Six, for example, is “important” or not.
  • And every so often you get to work with an insightful, curious, critical-but-no-drama reporter on a big-time piece (i.e. most senior folks at WIRED).

But despite any exceptions, I’ve always found the graph to be a useful construct for approaching media inquiries, and calculating how to best manage the risks while maintaining one’s sanity. 📈

All around random information obsessive. Previously @Square @Google @YouTube. Currently: pandemic homeschool teacher’s asst.

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