Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Don't copy my copy

Recently I opened my morning newspaper to find a story I had placed, and been expecting. I was happy: The messages reflected what had been in the press release I had supplied to the reporter as background. In fact, some of the language appeared nearly verbatim as I had written it. I was pleased -- but also a little disappointed.

I was surprised at my own reaction. I remember sitting stunned several years ago when, during a session at a National Science Writers Association conference, I heard some PIOs grouse about reporters passing off a press release as their own story. Journalistic ethics aside, isn't that our goal? Aren't we supposed to get our message into the media as unfiltered as possible? And while we should take pride in our work, there's no reason to have pride of authorship as PIOs. Most of the writing I do gets credited to someone else as a matter of course.

Yet, we expect journalists to dig a little deeper into the stories we present to them. I do my best to ensure that when I write a press release, it is concise and tells a complete story. Press releases have to have a life of their own if they are to do any good, regardless of whether they get picked up by the media. Nonetheless, I have neither the time nor the staff to plumb the depths of every story my organization has to tell. The pitch we make to a reporter, whatever form that pitch takes, is meant to be a tease. It's to entice them to tell a richer a story, even if that means we have to cede control over the message. That was the source of my disappointment: The story was good but could have been so much better, and I was as disappointed in myself as I was the reporter.

And what about those reporters to whom we lob these pitches? They're not sitting around, twiddling their thumbs, waiting for us to call or email. I did that job for six years. If I had given every story the attention it deserved, I would have written maybe two a year. That's no excuse for ethical shortcuts -- and mind you, I'm making no such accusation in this case -- but the temptation to let others do the reporting for you is sometimes too great to ignore. Whether journalists or PIOs, we have more tools than ever to tell great stories -- but still not enough time in which to do it.

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