Beware “exclusives” both intended and unintentional

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As I mentioned in my last blog, I recently spoke with a number of journalists about their preferences in receiving information from organisations, and some of their likes and dislikes.

As I mentioned in my last blog, I recently spoke with a number of journalists about their preferences in receiving information from organisations, and some of their likes and dislikes.

One thing that became apparent is that there are still a number of people and organisations – including, unfortunately, public relations practitioners who should know better – approaching “exclusives” in a very cavalier way.

Clearly, from what journalists say, people don’t understand how exclusives work and, as a result, annoy the journalists. They don’t appear to be giving any thought to either long-term relationships, or the immediate needs of journalists’ deadlines and other priorities.

The following comments apply to journalists I deal with in the financial services, personal finance and investment areas. Dealing with journalists in other areas, such as the leaky world of politics, may require different approaches.


The exclusive that isn’t

One example is the exclusive that isn’t – giving information to a journalist as an exclusive but soon afterwards distributing it to others whose publications come out earlier.

Giving an “exclusive that isn’t” is very counter-productive to both the journalist getting the exclusive and those who get the release.  It can make journalists wary of using information from the organisation or individual in the future, as they won’t be sure that they have been given the story in a timely manner or that the ‘juicy bits’ haven’t been reserved for someone else.

Generally it’s worth working on the premise that if you give an exclusive you can’t expect anyone else to use the same story.  And if you do give an exclusive to one journalist, he or she has the right to expect it won’t appear anywhere else before they can use it.

Even giving an exclusive to a weekly, and then trying to ‘stagger’ distribution to suit different deadlines is dangerous.  It can be just a little bit too clever and those who try this will usually end up coming to grief – especially in these days of e-newsletters.


Exclusive – there’s a downside

Clients are often genuinely surprised when I point out that giving an exclusive means it is unlikely anyone else will use the story – and if they do they’ll look for a new angle which could be negative.

Basically, journalists will always use a story they think is important to their own audience, but don’t expect them to be helpful or write any more than they need to if they think you favour others.


Making a weak story an exclusive

Journalists are also unlikely to be impressed when they’re offered an exclusive which is really a weak story that probably wouldn’t get a run if distributed as a media release.  They are not so easily fooled.  And journalists talk to each other so they often know when some-one is hawking an “exclusive” around.


Keeping a promise

A story shouldn’t be promised to a particular journalist in the future “when the deal is finalised” as a way of getting them to hold off on an embarrassing leak if you always intend to send it out as a general release.

Sometimes there are regulatory reasons it has to be announced more widely (eg an ASX listed company), or there’s another party involved.  So be careful with promises you can’t keep.  In journalists’ eyes none of these reasons matter, and it’s the promise that’s the important thing.


The accidental exclusive

A similar issue is the “accidental exclusive” – when someone mentions a forthcoming announcement to a journalist in general conversation, leading the journalist to think he or she will have the story as an exclusive when the time comes.

This can result in an annoyed journalist because a general release goes out, or other journalists being annoyed that preferential treatment has been given to a competitor.

Executives don’t always seem to realise that to a journalist, being told “I’ll make sure you get it first” is, to them, the same as promising an exclusive.


Stealing “exclusive” information

Another mistake organisations and their media people can make is when they get a call from a journalist developing a story and thinking to themselves “that’s a good idea – let’s do a release on that”.

If a journalist is onto the story first, then they deserve first go at it.  Sometimes it’s possible to “do a deal”, especially if there’s been a leak or it’s an announcement that the organisation was about to make, but the journalist concerned deserves respect.


Exclusive coverage guarantee

There are publications, and individual journalists, who insist that they won’t use information unless it is guaranteed as an exclusive.

Sometimes this is true; other times it may be that the journalist is trying to put a bit of pressure on to get favourable treatment.

The reality is that if it is a good story, it is in the journalist’s own interests to use it.  And if it’s a good story, it is usually in the organisation’s interest to get it used widely.


Place for exclusives

There is always a place for the occasional exclusive in any ongoing program – for instance, to try to get certainty that a story will appear in a particular publication in a set time-frame for some good reason.

Working out the best distribution approach to suit long-term image building aims as well immediate circumstances and needs, is an important part of any announcement strategy.

As a general rule, if you play straight with journalists then they’ll play fair with you.  Treat everyone equally and you reduce the risk of getting someone offside, or even hostile.  It’s rarely worthwhile taking a short-term view, and it’s usually best to think of building ongoing coverage, not just a mention tomorrow.