Do’s and Don’ts Of Working With Publicists

Whether you’re covering an event, interviewing a celebrity, or writing a story on a corporation, there will come a time when you have to work with a publicist. While some would argue that a journalist should try to avoid working with a publicist whenever possible because they have their own agendas, it’s nearly unavoidable, especially if you’re covering entertainment or sports.

It’s a relationship of mutual dependence—you need access to their client, they need you for publicity for their client. This fragile relationship has to be put in perspective, however, because as a journalist, your main priority is getting the story right, regardless of the agenda of a publicist.

Celebrity publicists have gained more power as publications become desperate for celebrity interviews, especially for the cover of magazines. As Lori Berger, an entertainment writer for magazines like Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire, said in an interview with the American Journalism Review:

“I remember years ago, when you were an editor, you had power,” Berger said. “But publicists are now making editing decisions, and I am just astonished by it. It used to be that you were selling the celebrity, but that was it. Now you’re not getting the story you want, or the picture you want, or even the hair and makeup you want, because the publicist approves all that. I always say to publicists now: `I want your job!’ ”

There can be plenty of grey areas when working with publicists, but there are also some very clear Do’s and Don’ts:

DO contact the right publicist
Figuring out who to contact can be tough. For celebrities, the best start is to look up their IMDB profile or WhoRepresents, which will often list which PR firm they’re represented by. Then, call the firm and find out who exactly you should send your request to. Find out if e-mail or phone requests are best. Many musicians list their PR representation on their site. Celebrities often switch publicists, so make sure you have up-to-date information by making a phone call to the firm.

DO NOT take a publicist’s statement as fact
Always make sure to do your own research to verify any information a publicist gives you. If she claims her client’s lip balm is the #3 selling lip balm in the U.S., you need to find that fact from an unbiased source.

DO ask a publicist for access to their celebrity client for an interview.
To get an interview with an actor, musician or athlete, you will most likely have to go through a publicist. Unless you’re personally connected to the talent somehow, you will have to go through the gatekeeper. You can politely send them an email or phone call explaining why their client should be in the publication you’re writing for. Be specific about how much time you would need, and if the interview needs to be in person, by phone, or email.

DO NOT let the publicist answer the questions.
I tend to avoid emailing questions whenever possible. While most professional publicists probably have ethically upright enough to not answer the questions that are meant for their client, but the best way to guarantee this is to do a phone interview instead. Often, the publicist will be on the phone during the interview, so make sure to stay in control of the interview and don’t let the publicist answer questions for their client.

DO be nice and polite
You should never burn a bridge that you don’t have to. If a publicist needs to reschedule an interview, or is aggressive when pitching his or her client, take it in stride. Be polite because you may have to work with him or her again in the future.

DO NOT sacrifice your ethics just to get the interview
Rarely, but sometimes, a publicist may make a request that is unethical. For example, they sometimes request to see the story before it runs in print to make sure their client is described in a favorable light. This was most likely never a part of the agreement for the interview, and you have to be clear that it’s against the editorial policy of the organization you’re writing for. It’s something you should definitely discuss with your editor.

DO keep in contact with a good publicist
Once you’ve worked with a publicist and you find them agreeable, you should feel comfortable keeping in contact with them. If they represent a lot of clients that could fit the type of writing you do, it’s fine to build a professional relationship. “With publicists, it should really be about targeted relationship building instead of cold calling,” Mackenzie Dawson, Daily Features Editor of the New York Post told Businesswire. “My ideal publicist is one who has really gotten to know me over time and has a good idea of the kind of news I cover.”

DO NOT let your friendship dictate your choices
While building a professional relationship is important if you’ll be dealing with publicists in the future, just make sure to keep aware that their agenda is different than yours. Sometimes, they will pitch something that isn’t right for your publication. You should never take a story just to please a publicist.

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