Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

‘Fun’ with public relations people

I was watching a news report that told about how “security” people are making it hard for journalists to talk to people working on the oil cleanup story, though BP insists that reporters should be given access to the beaches and the people.

It brought back fond memories of my days at The Bradenton Times, I had to deal with a person who was the enemy of dedicated reporters everywhere. I got the feeling that this person, who I’ll call Tina, was determined that not one mention of the college she worked for ever appeared in any medium.

The college was State College of Florida, formerly Manatee Community College. It had hired a president who decided to ram through a name change because for some reason, having “community college” in your moniker is supposed to be negative. The president also made some waves over the notion that his American Dream was destroyed because a private school across the street from his house was putting in lights on its sports field, and it had ruined the value of the house he recently bought and was trying to sell.

Anyway, college public relations departments are very intent on keeping reporters from students and teachers, for some reason. I felt that as a reporter I had to right to talk to whoever I wanted to talk to and pursue any story I wanted to pursue, and I didn’t need anyone’s permission to do so. Tina did not agree, maybe because she was just out of college and was just following orders.

My first encounter with Tina was after I saw a press release on the college’s Web site about a professor who had published a book on movies. I wanted to do a story on it, and called the professor directly. He answered, was flattered that someone had noticed, and we had a very friendly and pleasant interview and chat about Woody Allen’s films. The resulting story is here.

Later that day, I was covering an event involving a proposed charter middle school at the college. The people running the program were glad to see me, but worried because they had been ordered not to talk to the media. I wondered at the secrecy, and we did chat off the record for a while.

Later, Tina showed up, approached me and had some pointed words about my reporting methods.

“You called a professor directly,” she said. “From now on you will call my office first, and then I will call you back and let you know if an interview is approved.” After that, she would listen to the interview and decide if all my questions were appropriate.

I told her she was way out of line and that the college’s rules on interviews didn’t apply to me as a working reporter. I could talk to anyone I wanted to talk to at the college, especially over the phone if I was off the campus, and did not need her permission to do so.

She replied that this was the college’s policy. She got even at the event by following me around like a “minder” and listening to all interviews I conducted, even saying that she would decide who I could interview.

Later on, I wrote a piece that I decided not to put up that criticized Tina, and I described her as a graduate of the journalism program at the University of Pyongyang, where she appeared to have learned her “minder” techniques.

It’s usually worse publicity to actively block reporters from a story or interfere with their newsgathering. They’ll try to get the story any way they can, and report on the efforts made to stop the story. This person eventually forgot who I was or decided that cooperating was best because during work for a later story, she was vastly more cooperative and even talked about the journalism business. Maybe she realized that making trouble for reporters would hurt her own efforts to land a job in the news media.

Not many people like or respect the media, and I understand that. But the overwhelming majority of reporters are just looking to inform readers and viewers, and do not have an agenda.

Of course, I am now a copy editor again and never go out on stories. But if the reporters can’t do their job, then I can’t do mine.

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June 18, 2010 - Posted by | The news business | , , , , , , ,

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