May 12, 2020

PR to Go

One of the best ways to learn about how to handle media relations well is to actually speak with editors and journalists to get their perspectives. Two weeks ago, I interviewed Tim Bousquet, news editor at The Coast.

As part of this ongoing exchange, I had an opportunity to speak with John Williams a few days ago.

John is a former publisher and reporter for Frank magazine and the founder, publisher and jack-of-all-trades for the newly launched Gaze magazine – a quarterly that will be produced in mid-January, April, July and October. Gaze is a one-man show with freelancers providing some of the content. The editorial tone is set in-house and is geared to the under-40 GLBT community.

“Younger people haven’t had to face the same issues as people who came up through the 80s and 90s so they’re interested in different things,” he said. “I wanted to give them something pretty, something that attracted them.”

He is quick to add that although life is easier for everyone now doesn’t mean it will stay that way and that it’s very easy to not be aware of something or turn a blind eye to issues that aren’t in front of you. “It’s important to put a face on an issue because issues get tossed aside when people can’t identify with them. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

John was born in Shelburne County just outside of Lockeport and attended Mount Allison, earning a BA with honours in history and a minor in political science. Despite not choosing to study journalism, he showed an interest in the reporting arts and ran his high school newspaper and worked on Mount A’s student paper.

“Getting into journalism was one of the products of growing up in a small town and wanting to know what everyone was doing,” he said.

Working at the controversial Frank magazine has given John a unique perspective of dealing with PR people.

“Having been at Frank for 8.5 years over two periods of time, you deal with every PR person over time. You learn who’s good and who’s not,” he said. “ For every one good PR person, there are 25 bad PR persons. Those who don’t return calls, don’t get the information we need to write the story. Those who condescend to you, who patronize. They don’t realize that the more frustrated a reporter gets, the more we’re going to think there’s more to the story.”

In John’s experience, the people who handle media relations well are those who understand what their job is, how to get the information and to meet a reporter’s deadlines.

“There was a PR person who worked for RCMP. She was new to the PR game, but even six months out didn’t know what she could say or not say and she took no effort to find out,” he said. “The person at [the Department of] Justice was equally poor. She made it sound like she was doing a favour by picking up the phone.”

Developing a trust relationship is an important factor in good media relations. It’s important whether you’re on the PR or the reporting side of things. There has to be mutual respect. A good journalist understands that there are limitations as to what a PR person can tell them. In return, a PR person should treat reporters fairly.

Although “no comment” and “I can’t tell you” can mean the same thing, the former fuels the idea that something is being hidden and the later is a sign of respect. Of course, there has to be trust first before a PR person is going to be able to say, “I can’t tell you that.”

[A note to anyone handling their own media relations: There is no such thing as off-the-record. If you tell a reporter something and then ask s/he not to use it, you’re asking them to do something you just proved you couldn’t – keep a secret. It isn’t a reporter’s job to keep your secrets.]

Turning to the practical side of MR and how to pitch a story to Gaze , John suggests giving him a heads up on Twitter (@CitizenWilliams) or sending him an email.

“I’m one of those people who drags a smart phone around with him 24 hours-a-day, but hate talking on it so email is best,” he says. “I’m open to either an informal email or a news release but I’m always appreciative of personalization. Even just a header that tells me what it’s about. I might give something a second look because they’ve taken a moment to personalize it for me.”

As for follow-up, John prefers a quick text. Since he is the only one in the office, unsolicited phone calls usually interrupt work.

From John’s perspective – and, I suspect, almost anyone’s – the shorter the news release, the better. It should have a catchy lead, especially if the message hasn’t been personalized, and it should be to the point with all of the salient points at the top. Links to additional information and a contact person should be included.

He is also open to hearing from a PR person who has just taken up a new post. It can be helpful particularly if he has been dealing with a different individual previously. Meeting or having a chat over the phone can start building the trust relationship and will help them understand what Gaze is about.

Because the focus at Gaze is to put a face on an issue, high-resolution photos are important – a good thing to remember. PR people can also keep in mind the basics of media relations: being timely and providing accurate information.

You might also like - Ep. 06 — Kelly-Anne Suarez - Break Into Public Relations

If you want to pitch a feature story that you think might be relevant to Gaze , send John an email that outlines the broad strokes so he understands the issue and what the content of the story might be. A few paragraphs will do. If the story is of interest, John will work with the PR person to develop the story.

John said: “My main piece of advice is less about pitching me a story is and more that I’m happy to deal with PR people as long as they know what their job is. If I know what your job is, you should know what your job is.”

Related Post: Ep. 04 — Jeff Stanford

At the end of the day, civility and professionalism makes for good interactions with journalists – or anyone else.

NOTE: Gaze is definitely a labour of love with an inaugural issue that was well received. John is pulling together a reliable team of writers. If you are interested in freelancing and know how to pull a story together and hit a deadline, contact John at or on Twitter at @CitizenWilliams.

You might also like reading Ep. 05 — Roy Reid, APR, CPRC

What is your experience with dealing with the media or a PR person? What has worked and what hasn’t? I’d love to hear. Colleen