Reporting tips: how to get the best from press officers

In season five of The West Wing, there’s an episode titled Access, where a camera crew follows White House press secretary CJ Cregg around. When asked what she thinks her job is, she struggles to come up with an exact answer, but all her replies go something like this: “I am here to articulate the President’s message and to honestly inform the press, and through them the public, about what is happening on any given day.”

And that’s the dilemma for press officers. They serve two masters – reporters, and whoever pays their wages at the end of the month.

The relationship between press officers and reporters is probably never going to be as smooth as silk, but reporters should be able to respect what press officers do, and vice versa. Here’s some basic tips, gleaned from experience working in a council press office and for newspapers, on how journalists can build a good relationship with press officers.

Get to know each other
It can be all too easy to be just a voice on the other end of the phone to a press officer, and for them to be the same to you. That might work, but meeting face to face is always more conducive to building up a relationship with each other. Take the press officers you have the most contact with (police, council etc) out for coffee. Meet on neutral territory and make it a regular thing so you can get to know each other. People are always more willing to help those they know, rather than those who just call up every so often demanding answers.

Don’t shout or be rude
This is a general lesson for life as well as for when talking to press officers. Yes, it’s frustrating when it’s taking ages to answer a query, but shouting is not going to get anything done faster. In fact, it’s just going to slow things down. If you’re frustrated as to why a query is taking so long to answer, explain your dissatisfaction in a calm manner, and lay out your points as to why an answer should be forthcoming as quickly as possible one by one and in a logical way. 

Submit full queries
During my brief stint working in a council press office before my journalism training, I took a call from a journalist about an event the council was staging. The journalist asked me a few questions, I found out the relevant answers and called him back. Only by that time he’d come up with a few more questions. So I found out the answers, and I called him back, and he’d come up with some more questions. We went back and forth about five times during the day, which was incredibly frustrating. Lesson – try and ask all the questions you want answers to in one go. Yes, sometimes an answer the press office gives you will lead to another question, but more often than not you should be able to ask all your questions in one go, saving your time and the press officer’s.

Make sure the press office knows your deadlines
As soon as you put a query in, give the press officer a deadline. This saves any confusion later on. With weekly papers, some press offices like to know a paper’s general deadlines. When giving press officers these, make it clear those are your deadlines, not theirs. Just because your print deadline is 2.30pm on a Wednesday doesn’t mean the press office has until 2.15pm on a Wednesday to get back to you. Responses don’t magically appear on a page – copy needs to be written, news edited, subbed and placed on a page, so make sure you leave yourself plenty of time for that. It’s your responsibility to make sure the press office knows when you need responses by.

Always tell press officers the full story
This is especially true if your story is negative on the company the press officer works for. Don’t give them half the story to respond to, because you’ll only get an angry call on publication day, asking why the press office wasn’t given a chance to respond to all the criticisms in your story.

Find the best way to contact your press officer
Some people like to be called, some like to be emailed. Some press officers are also more readily available by mobile, as their jobs see them moving around. Find out which they like, and which works for you as well. Personally, I prefer putting in a call to the press office, then emailing my query just to be on the safe side. Other reporters may like doing it differently. Make sure you know ask the best way to reach a press officer (and tell them how best to reach you), so you’ll have the right contact details handy when you really need them.

Always keep a record
Keep your emails to press officers, and keep their responses, particularly in the case of any controversial stories. It’s always good to have a paper trail just in case anything goes wrong. And remember to keep any shorthand notes of conversations. 

Ask for a heads up
Sometimes press officers aren’t able to get you an answer to a complicated query in the time period you want. In that case, ask if the press officer can ring you and give you an indication of what the response will be so you can plan your story. Or just ask them to keep you updated on how getting a response is going, so you can plan your time.

Don’t expect miracles
Press officers can’t just come with answers out of thin air. They have to talk to the relevant people, formulate a response, get it approved and then give it to you. And sometimes the people press officers have to get answers from aren’t always cooperative or don’t see the press as a priority (there’s a council where this is apparently rife – no names). Don’t give press officers unreasonable deadlines they can’t meet. Telling them you want an answer in 15 minutes isn’t acceptable, unless it’s a big, breaking news story. 

Sometimes you’ll have a couple of stories that need responses from press offices. Try and plan it so that you put in all the queries as early as possible. Don’t leave putting in a query until you sit down to write copy, it gives the press officer less time to get back to you, and slows you down because you can’t finish writing until you have a response.

And one last piece of advice you will hardly ever need, but worth bearing in mind just in case:

Go higher 
There will be the occasional press officer you encounter who will be obstructive, who will answer every query with: “Are you sure that’s a story?” and who will take weeks getting back to you in the hope that you forget about the story or just give up. Thankfully, these kinds of press officers are a rarity, but if you are unlucky enough to encounter one, remember they have a boss. If you’ve done everything in your power to be reasonable, made your queries clear, given deadlines and been polite, and they’re still not getting back to you, then go to their boss and ask for your query to be answers.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but following these points should make life easier for you and for the press officers you speak to. If you have any other tips, leave them in the comments below.

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