Reporters like full disclosure. Do you?

Originally posted on Oct. 30, 2010 on the Olson Communications company blog. Republished with permission. See original post here, and follow Olson Communication on Twitter: @olson_comm

FULL DISCLOSURE: I don’t yet have a degree and am technically under-qualified to advise your PR strategies.

When I was the business reporter for The State Press, one of the most cringe-worthy pitches I ever received from a PR professional included this at the end of the e-mail:

In the interest of transparency, I will say that I represent <client>…

First thought: thanks for letting me know! Are there times when you wouldn’t say who you were representing?*

For reporters, a good pitch contains something of value, and valuable information usually doesn’t come with hidden conflicts of interest. When I reported a story about a large-scale proposal to demolish and rebuild ASU fraternity housing – and the subsequent possibility of eminent domain being declared – it was important to me to know where my sources stood and what their motivations were for talking to me. My best stories involved interviewing people I could trust – and people who owned up to their perspective and stake in the issue.

As someone who has been on the receiving end of hundreds of pitches and story ideas over two years as an intern reporter and student journalist, it always made me more comfortable to know who was behind what before I considered pursuing a story idea. For my fellow journos, it was the same. Most of the time, such root information was revealed in the form of one phrase in an e-mail that said “our client, <client>, is doing this newsworthy thing that…” At that point, the e-mail had succeeded in managing expectations.

Sometimes it can be a bit more complicated, and the Public Relations Society of America’s code of ethics offers general guidelines to help, including:

–          Reveal sponsors for represented causes and interests.

–          Disclose financial interests in a client’s organization.

–          Avoid conflicts between personal and professional interests.

Highly decorated retired USAF Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney received harsh criticism for failing to disclose conflicts of interests as a Fox News Analyst and Wall Street Journal guest writer. For more:

At the end of the day, good disclosure is good business. The media will probably figure out if there’s an apparent conflict of interest, and they’re probably more likely to listen if they know where you’re coming from at the outset. So the winning strategy for building relationships? Disclose.

For an incredible story about what can happen when conflicts of interests aren’t disclosed in the media, check out this Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times article. Of course, there are a lot more players to blame in that story than just the PR people.

*That was just my first reaction.

Editor’s note: Matt Culbertson is an intern at Olson Communications. Follow him on Twitter: @mattculbertson


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