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Working with journalists when you have to say no

What do you do when a request from the ResponseSource Journalist Enquiry Service isn’t suitable for you, or your client? That’s an easy one – there’ll be another request soon so you ignore it. But sometimes you respond in good faith, wholeheartedly believing you can help with a request, and then something goes wrong.

Why does that happen, what do you do next, and how can you avoid it happening again?

Don’t blame yourself, but do take responsibility

Back to the request that’s gone wrong. It’s probably not your fault – you’ve evaluated the request; you know your client has a bank of recent research to draw on, or you’ve confirmed they’re free for an interview.

But then something goes awry – the client is suddenly busy, or worse still, they tell you they don’t actually want to be in that niche trade magazine/celebrity weekly/broadsheet supplement (OK, the last example is unlikely – has it ever happened to you?). Other features might take precedence, or a crisis comes up elsewhere and there just aren’t enough hours in the day (or in your contract) to pursue every opportunity.

What worries a journalist here is not so much that you’ve had to pull out – it can be a pain but you make up for it by being consistently reliable so they know it’s not going to happen every time. The real problem arises if you don’t communicate with them and leave them in the lurch.

How the journalist feels

We’re confident this isn’t a regular occurrence but recently a long-term journalist user told us he’s been increasingly frustrated with PRs saying they’ll arrange contributions, interviews or other help for a story. He then finds himself having to chase them up shortly before a generous deadline only to hear that “the client doesn’t want to contribute after all … sorry for not getting in touch sooner”. He wondered if it happens to him because he mainly works for trade publications that aren’t so well-known and clients aren’t as far-sighted as the PR professionals they employ.

A PR professional won’t respond to a request that they don’t feel would be valuable for their client in the first place. They know that a story from a small circulation title (or a regional paper or an industry blog) can still reach the right audience or may be picked up by the national press – or that the journalist who writes for that niche title could be working for a much more “important” outlet next year.

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Be honest, and act quickly

But it can be hard to get this across to a client who doesn’t understand the media the way you do and they won’t always take your advice in the end. And you’re left having to let down a journalist – which is never easy. The key thing is your long-term relationship with that journalist – it’s the lack of updates which they find frustrating, leaving the journalist who contacted us with the impression that sometimes “they simply hope that it will all go away”. But it doesn’t all go away when he’s facing a deadline and suddenly finds he has to drum up another interview at the last minute.

So there may be a good reason why you have to pull out – and the journalist may even understand it and sympathise, if they have time. So the only next step is to be honest and act quickly. Tell them if you have to pull out as soon as you realise, and leave the journalist as much time as possible to find comment, information or experts elsewhere – then you’ll get a chance to put things right on another story.

Try to make it a one-off

How do you stop this from happening in the first place? You know this already – knowing your client and their target press, checking their availability, asking them if they’re interested before you respond if the deadline allows. If you’re not sure about the outlet, and it’s not on your media database, get in touch with ResponseSource and we may be able to offer more information about any of the journalist requests we send to you.

If you do contact the journalist, be honest about the stage you’re at – “my client x may be able to help, let me know if you’d be interested and I’ll ask” if you aren’t 100% sure. Then keep them informed, and remember they get paid for the stories they produce – if you can’t help, then make sure they have the chance to get the help they need from another source. There will always be a next time as long as you’ve treated your journalist contact fairly when things don’t work out.

Are you a journalist who uses the ResponseSource Journalist Enquiry Service? How do you feel about this – or is there anything else that you think we, or our PR subscribers, could do better?

If you’re a PR user – do you have any advice to add?

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