Last month, Buzzfeed reported the story of a vegan journalist whose (relevant and appropriate) pitch to an editor at WaitroseFood magazine was met with an alarming level of contempt. In fact, it bordered on threatening. In response to reporter Selene Nelson’s suggestion of a plant-based meal series, editor William Sitwell wrote, “Hi Selene. Thanks for this. How about a series on killing vegans, one by one. Ways to trap them? How to interrogate them properly? Expose their hypocrisy? Force-feed them meat? Make them eat steak and drink red wine?”
It’s unclear if it was meant to be a joke, but we didn’t find it funny—we found it disturbing on many levels. And while this is an extreme case, the incivility demonstrated is certainly not an isolated occurrence.
For as long as we’ve been working with reporters, we’ve received brusque emails in reply: “I don’t work with PR people.” “Don’t email me again.” “I will never cover anything you pitch me.” And if we had a dollar for every reporter panel we’ve attended during which our profession has been criticized, mocked or outright insulted, we’d have many, many dollars. One of our colleagues has stopped attending a major national conference that brings together reporters and communicators because she doesn’t want to support (or sit through) the ongoing criticism of PR people that happens in many of its sessions.
For the most part, we’ve let this criticism roll off our backs. It comes with the job. And, the vast majority of journalists are cordial, even nice. Despite the fact some in our industry (the email spammers, the opportunists, the multiple phone callers, and even those who lash out at reporters for passing on stories) have given media relations a bad reputation, most of us pride ourselves on being professional and respectful in all interactions with journalists, whether we like the end result or not. That includes following best practices for pitching—never sending mass emails, always making sure the pitch is relevant to the reporter based on past coverage and interests, limiting follow up to one email, etc. We’ve even gone so far as to take a public stance in support of reporters and the media.
Lately though, the level of vitriol coming back at us is surprising and disappointing. One response from a reporter earlier this year offered “congratulations” for bringing him “one of the dumbest studies I’ve ever seen in my life.” For the record, it was a study in the same topic as his beat and it was published by the Journal of Consumer Psychology, a major academic journal. It was also subsequently covered by a handful other national outlets, including the Wall Street Journal. A simple, “I’ll pass,” or even no reply at all would have sufficed. He went on to share the email in a series of tweets, complete with screenshots. We’re not sure they accomplished much—they didn’t gain any traction among his followers. We’re also not sure why he felt his public shaming was necessary.
This behavior is part of a larger issue that our team has been discussing for years, but we have been reluctant to voice because we share the journalist community’s perception that PR people need reporters more than they need us. But in this day and age, when the credibility of the media is attacked every day, we’d urge journalists to see us not just as resources who can help identify accurate, relevant, responsive sources when no one else wants to talk, but as allies who every day are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them in advocating for importance of what they do.
We’re not naïve enough to think that the balance of power in the PR professional/journalist relationship will ever shift further in favor of the PR pro. But we see absolutely no reason to turn a blind eye to those reporters who refuse to treat us professionally or shame us for doing our jobs.
Unfortunately, the political climate has given some people the idea that incivility and even outright hatred are acceptable. But none of us should be okay with that. It is our hope that most of us can rise above and act professionally and respectfully in the best interest of what’s most important to journalists and media relations professionals alike—a free press that upholds democracy by reporting fairly on stories that matter. Will you join us?
This piece, written by Erin Hennessy and Kristine Maloney, originally appeared on Call to Action, an Inside Higher Ed blog.