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On the Record with Elizabeth Yuko, PhD: The Relationship Between PR Professionals and Press

August 25, 2020
By Caitlin Teahan

For this ‘On the Record’ post, Caitlin Teahan explores the ups, downs and in-betweens when it comes to the relationships between PR professionals and members of the press. Seasoned freelancer and notable bioethicist, Elizabeth Yuko, PhD had a candid conversation with Caitlin focused on her personal experiences and point of view.

CT: What do you think about the relationship between PR professionals and journalists?

EY: It is hard. There is such a spectrum of PR people and you don’t all belong in the same category. You have people who are extremely helpful, non-pressuring, but on the other hand you have people who are not helpful and constantly harassing me. Most people fall in the middle somewhere. It really depends on the person.

CT: Would you say PR professionals and journalists depend upon each other or would you consider one or both independent of the other?

EY: Hmm…I don’t do a lot where I necessarily need to work with PR people. A lot of times they are the gatekeepers to the people I need to talk to, so it isn’t that I necessarily need them. There are absolutely situations where I have been able to turn a pitch from a PR person into a pitch to a publication. Much less so lately, but in the past, it has been helpful for getting ideas. Once you have a good relationship with a PR person in your specific area, it does make your life easier. The randos that pop up are not helpful!

CT: What have you personally experienced that has been a positive in terms of your relationship with a PR professional?

EY: Ooh! So, I went on a press trip a week after my mom died. The trip was just me and the PR person, which had never happened to me before. I was thinking it was going to be very weird since it was in the middle of everything going on in my life. It ended up being great and we had a great dynamic. It was a good experience because I removed myself from a stressful situation and he was extremely accommodating while I was mourning, which a lot of people are not comfortable with. He was empathetic and while this may not be considered a ‘normal’ example, it really mattered to me.

I am so grateful for that experience and that trip. I also have a great relationship with a brand PR person who arranged for me to go on another trip. It included a spa experience and, knowing that I was caring for my ailing mother at that time, they were incredibly kind. But they also set up a chat with a specialist at the spa who did beauty treatments for cancer patients. They didn’t just show us what to do for my mom but followed up after — which was an extremely personal experience because of my mom. It didn’t involve anything to do with my work or the assignment, it was just incredibly meaningful and relevant to me. But at the same time, I know more about this service they offer and can share that knowledge with friends.

CT: On a lesser note, anything overly negative?

EY: Yes. The follow-ups that just don’t stop or even worse, the follow-up when I have actually responded! At that point, I get a little catty and tend to copy and paste my past response. But I cannot think of anything horrible. It is the consistent, little annoying things. Honestly, I am trying to think of ‘bad ones’ but I delete them so quickly that I don’t even think about it!

CT: Let’s talk about those little things. Can you give me some examples?

EY: Sure. Freelancers also usually have no idea when an article is going to run. Most publications I write for don’t let us know, so the PR person’s guess is as good as ours. I understand why a PR person wants to know this, but as a freelancer, we genuinely don’t know either. If you’ve already asked us about this once, and we respond saying that we don’t know/have no say in the publication date, please, please don’t keep emailing for “updates.” We don’t have any.

Along the same lines, I get a lot of requests along the lines of “send me the link when the story runs.” If this is an article where I’ve done in-depth interviews with sources, or it’s a personal/sensitive topic, I will absolutely send them a link the minute I know an article is up. But they’re never the ones who ask. It’s usually in cases where I had to write a 25-item listicle with a different source for each item. Going through and contacting each PR person I worked with for something like that takes a long time. In so many of these cases, it’s something that could be solved by the PR person setting up a news alert for their client.

CT: What is the most important thing for a PR professional to remember when working with journalists?

EY: One thing I wish PR people would know is that as freelancers, we have no control over the headline, the final edit, and the images. I get so many emails about this. One outlet I work with has their own photo department and have a very specific style. I once quoted someone and her PR person reached out about the image they selected as they didn’t feel it went with their spokesperson’s ‘vibe,’ to which I said no way! That isn’t something I can control. It is a weird ask even when I was an editor but now, it just isn’t an option. Publications do things differently; it is their stylistic preference. Having a better understanding of what freelancers have control over or don’t would save a lot of back and forth.

The PR person wastes their time asking and I waste my time responding. Sometimes they ask to get in touch with my editor so they can handle it directly. That puts me in a weird position, because as you know, editors are not always willing to share their contact information, especially with journalists let alone PR people. I don’t want to be the one that has put my editor on some annoying mailing list! That is another weird one to deal with.

Now that I am thinking, I have been getting so many pitches for ‘snake oil’ and totally ridiculous products in the wellness space. I get it. But I am now getting them from people I don’t even know — not from my usual contacts — and I can’t even begin to tell you how many I am getting a day. Especially from CBD brands. They follow up THE SAME DAY. What is up with that? Just don’t do it. Not only are they pitching things that aren’t right for me, but they are following up the same day. In my head I am saying, ‘I don’t know you and this topic isn’t for me. Do some research.’ Also keep in mind when you are pitching products, most product round-ups and things are done in-house, with the publication’s staff. So, while I appreciate it, as a freelancer, I can’t always write about it. I get why I am on your list but keep that in mind.

Last thing I will say — things get tricky when it comes to branding. Some publications do not care if your sources are brand representatives or spokespeople. At other publications, it is not permitted. I can’t control that. So, when I send out a HARO and a PR person responds with content, I may include them, but their specific brand may not be mentioned. That isn’t my call. One of my outlets doesn’t mind if I use brands as part of expert commentary, others are not OK with a specific mention like that. It would be helpful if the PR person would just let me know that if I cannot mention a brand, they cannot give me the quote when they reach out. On the flip side, I was once doing a story on eating disorders and mental health, and the photo the editor had picked to run with it was a person on a scale. The PR person reached out and noted that the image is quite triggering for people — that kind of call out is completely legitimate. We were able to change that. That is a time when their reaching out is productive, but it is a different situation than asking me to add in the spokesperson’s blog title, for example.

CT: Any last piece of advice or things to know?

EY: One last thing. I hate getting asked, ‘What are you working on right now?’ Especially now. No one at this point has a beat or a direction. We are all over the place. I don’t know what I am working on right now! Half of what I am working on right now are random assignments. It is just the work I am getting thrown that day that I have to take because of the current state of things. That question also creates more work because they are asking me to send them a report of my activity. It changes from day to day, so I really do not know. It may work for some journalists though, so it depends.

I do make a genuine effort to respond to those emails. I respond in batches twice a day. I used a canned response for ones I am not interested in, and then, if I have worked with someone before or it could be a future fit, I do try to respond personally. As a freelancer, I get what it is like to have your work and emails ignored. The issue is, PR people think my response means I will answer your questions. I don’t have time to list out my subjects for you! In one sound bite: think about if what you are asking is making more work for that person. If it generates unnecessary work, then maybe you should think twice before sending.

CT: Thank you for taking the time, as always, a pleasure!

EY: Thank you!