Send journalists to your competitors

by David Harris on October 4, 2010

One of the most surprising lessons I learned as a young PIO was the value of sending a journalist who phones looking for a source to a competing institution. This is some advice that those higher up the hierarchy probably won’t want to hear so you might have to be a bit sneaky. I like to be subversive when it gets the job done better than otherwise.

Suppose you work in some university that is competing for funding, grants, and students with other universities or colleges in the same geographical area, or in the same field of research. Surely it could only be a bad plan to send a journalist off to chat to one of those competitors.

It IS a bad idea if you live only in the present of this phone call. But to be an effective PIO means building long-term relationships that are useful for both your institution and that of the journalist.

Now suppose a journalist is calling asking for an expert on, say, protease inhibitors because they heard about a story published by an overseas university about a new drug that seems quite important. You might have a great institution doing lots of good pharmacology, but you don’t have anybody right there at the moment who would be ideal for this call.

You have plenty of biologists who could talk about protease inhibitors in general but they’re not experts in the pharmacology. Your rival institution, however, does have somebody so you suggest the journalist call them, but if they need background on the biology, point out that they could talk to your person and pass on their direct number.

Have you just cost your institution a media clip? Perhaps. But maybe that other expert isn’t around and you have the backup person. So maybe you get the clip after all.

Much more importantly, you have just demonstrated your credibility very clearly to the journalist and they got the information they needed.

Suppose you’re the journalist. Who are you going to call the next time you need to cover a biomedical story? You’re calling the institution that seems guaranteed to give you what you need. They’ll either get a source on the spot or be directed somewhere useful.

As a PIO you win overall because you build your reputation and relationship, by offering honest and useful information. You also get the next call from that journalist and you might have exactly the right person to help them out.

Update–Oct 11, 2010: While having a beer with a journalist, talking about this project, he looked at the headlines of my pieces and seeing this one said immediately, “Anybody who does this goes straight to the top of my list of VIP contacts.”

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  • Mike Shanahan

    I totally agree with you on this. I often send journalists to other organisations if my colleagues are away or too busy (or even too shy) to give an interview. I go a step further too and often send press releases from our competitors to my mailing list of journalists around the world. I know what they are interested in and I don’t see any problem in providing the kind of information they find useful, even it is not from us.

    Thanks for creating this blog. I’m looking forward to reading more.

    • David Harris

      That is definitely further than most institutions go, Mike. If you’re able to share, is your upper management actively aware of that practice? Did you have any issues with them in starting it? Or do you just do it because you believe it’s best practice?

      I’d be keen to hear about other places that redistribute press releases from other institutions that aren’t representing a field but an institution. For example, the AAS wire service,, and lists redistribute on behalf of astronomy, particle physics, and lightsource science.

      • Mike Shanahan

        Hi David
        Yes, the management know but I am given the freedom to design and implement the institutional media strategy. As part of that I think it makes strategic sense, from time to time, to provide journalists with what I judge to be good quality information on the topic that my organisation also works on. However, I do this primarily because I know that the information will be of value to the journalists I send it to.

        • David Harris

          That’s great to hear, Mike! So many organizations have upper management that don’t play nicely with an effective approach to media relations. It probably helps that you work for an institution that is 1) aimed at solving a particular problem, rather than defined by a bricks-and-mortar set of facilities like a university, and 2) international. I’ve found those are great circumstances for having the room to do PIO work effectively, and have done precisely what you have done with distributing and promoting work from other orgs with the blessing of management. I was also fortunate to work in a university public information office whose head was happy for us to send journalists elsewhere. We didn’t go so far as to actively distribute work by others, but it was still great (and effective) to able to take a wider view.

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