Drink with journalists

by David Harris on October 4, 2010

The most useful thing I have ever done working as a PIO and journalist is to go drinking with colleagues and new acquaintances. Perhaps it’s my Australian heritage that means this usually involves beer or wine, but coffee works just as well.

Why do I go drinking with them? Because I like to make new friends and colleagues and it is great fun to spend time with journalists and PIOs, who are inherently interesting people with great stories to tell. Go to a pub quiz with a group of journalists and see how you fare. You’ll be surprised at the knowledge in your group. Going out for a drink is also a good break away from the interminability of conference sessions, if that’s where you find yourself surrounded by these types of people.

When I first came to the United States to work, I had done so on the promise to my new employer that I could build a network of journalist contacts in very little time. I felt confident in that promise because I’d done it in Australia, and made a good stab at it (mostly remotely) in the United Kingdom.

Three weeks after I arrived in the United States, I found myself at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in a cold Boston winter knowing essentially nobody, and without even owning the right clothes to keep my fragile, heat-acclimatized fingers still bendable. And yet, I came out of that meeting having had a drink or meal with many of the key science journalists in the world. At that time I didn’t need to know anybody specifically, but it was one of the most fun meetings I’ve ever been to and I remember it fondly.

So how does this liver destruction and caffeine stimulation help my job? First, I’m not doing it because it’s my job. I’m doing it because it’s fun. It just has great professional side effects. Sociability, the ability to get on with new people in odd settings, and the chance to talk about non-work topics all reflect skills that are vital to making an impact as a PIO.

I’ll make that even clearer. Interacting with people as people, not as nodes in a business network, allows you to start making real relationships with them. I’m the kind of person for whom those relationships are a good enough reward in themselves, but they also pay off in a huge way when it comes to later work.

I can no longer count the number of times that I’ve had a friendly relationship with a journalist for more than five years before I ever pitched a story to them, or had a proper work conversation with them. I knew what kinds of stories they were interested in, where they were living, what circles they moved in, and whether they’d had any kids since I last saw them.

When I did have a story that I thought might be useful to them, the call was easy, usually helpful to them, and much more enjoyable than a cold call to a voice behind a byline. And it accomplished my job effectively.

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