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4 Truths Publicists Need To Know About the Journalist Code of Ethics
May 16th, 2022
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The ever-changing media landscape is a tough one to navigate. As soon as you think you understand how it works, something changes thanks to modern technology and shifts in how people consume media. Affiliate marketing? Earned media? While the terminology continues to evolve and change, the journalist code of ethics has not.

Here, three experts share their secrets to understanding the rules that govern working with a journalist and how to respect them to foster healthy future media relationships.

Trust is key

Megan Hotze is the principal of Megan Hotze Editorial and a seasoned expert at securing earned media for her clients. According to her, it all starts with a foundation of trust, because the journalist code of ethics is rooted in distributing relevant, timely, and truthful information to an audience with which they’ve worked hard to establish trust and respect. 

“Clients can be tempted to include a lot of self-aggrandizing ‘fluff’ in their pitches and press releases, even if that means spinning a story that appears to be bigger than it is. However, this is never an effective approach,” Hotze said. “Once a journalist feels as though they can’t trust the details a publicist puts in front of them, that door officially closes, and it can be impossible to reopen.”

How do you avoid over-sensationalizing? Do your research and only provide facts that genuinely share why your client is relevant to the journalist’s audience.

Publicity strategist Beth Nydick agrees that the truth is more vital than ever, especially because journalists have been jilted in the past. If you want to build positive media relationships, a good publicist needs to be prepared to provide proof, because the journalist code of ethics requires writers to be thorough and fact-checked.

“The media is onto you! If I pitch a client stating that they made seven figures last year, I have to understand that my media contact is going to need proof,” she said. “Vetting your story and having the collateral to back up your claims will help journalists not only do their job, but want to work with you again.” 

Thought leadership is greater than a shameless plug

Hotze also thinks it’s essential for a publicist to reframe their mindset regarding what kind of coverage they are attempting to secure for their client. Once you understand and respect that a journalist’s priority and duty is to their audience alone and not serving your client, you’ll be able to move forward with the media relationship

The end result will be elevated media coverage that drips with authenticity. Rather than a shameless plug, your client will now be seen as a thought leader and expert in their field.

“Although what’s happening in a client’s business might feel exciting for everyone involved, a publicist must re-frame that story so that it serves as a resource, providing inspiration or useful information for a journalist’s readers, listeners, or viewers,” Hotze said. “Providing a journalist with useful expert commentary surrounding the significance of those developments allows clients to evolve into trusted thought leaders.”

Instead of thinking you only want to get your product mentioned in a guide, re-frame your client’s work:

  • Could they provide expert commentary on why they chose certain materials in their product to help with sustainability? 
  • Are they an entrepreneur who is also an activist or philanthropist in a particular area or an example of an excellent work-life balance?
  • Is there a story hidden somewhere within your client and their business that is more than the good or service itself?

“It’s an approach that may require more forethought,” Hotze admitted. “But it respects the journalist’s ethical responsibility to their audience and, in the end, carries far more weight than a feature that reads like a shameless plug.”

Publicists don’t control the story

One of the hardest things to let go of is control. But when it comes to media relations, a publicist can only control what they provide — not the final outcome.

“Publicists need to know that they will not have final approval for earned media coverage,” Georganne Hassell, the public relations and communications manager at both Sorenson Communications and CaptionCall, said. “The natural inclination is, of course, to retain control of the story, but publicists are not entitled to review or approve a story before it is published.”

In fact, letting a publicist or brand review a story before publication would breach the journalist's code of ethics. Demanding such a request when working with the media will only demonstrate a lack of understanding and respect on your end rather than building connections that will serve your client in the future. 

“Do not guarantee coverage: earned media is earned. I know you want your clients to be happy, but setting expectations of how earned media works will keep your clients coming back to you,” Nydick said. “It is not [the journalist’s] fault that your client wasn’t what they wanted. You have to understand the way media works currently and communicate that best you can back to your client.”

Nydick encouraged that while it may be challenging to manage expectations, you'll likely get more media coverage by being kind to journalists no matter what the outcome is. 

Another important factor that needs to be remembered is that to maintain the journalist code of ethics, an article a client will often be featured in will also include a competitor or opposite point of view. 

Hassell said that managing your client’s expectations by helping them gain a respectful understanding of the journalist code of ethics is essential in maintaining a healthy media relationship for all involved. 

“Clients and publicists should not expect journalists to exclusively feature their particular viewpoint in a story, as it could give the perception of unbalanced coverage. This is a key point to journalism because the coverage that only presents one angle of a story can mislead due to a lack of context,” Hassell said. “Publicists should have this understanding any time they engage with a reporter, even if the story is a feature specifically about their client.”

However, the good news is that professional journalists who follow their ethical code will let the facts speak for themselves. This is why accurate and detailed information should always be provided to the media when asked, and clients should respond to interview and samples requests in a reasonable amount of time.

Understanding and respecting a journalist’s role can secure a future relationship 

While it may be difficult navigating media relationships, managing expectations and being respectful will go a long way. 

Hassell said that understanding the journalist code of ethics helps secure earned media coverage for clients in the future.

“By taking the initiative to understand the journalist’s role in public discourse and the ethics code that journalists strive to follow, publicists will be better poised to know what to expect when engaging with reporters,” she said. 

Being respectful, managing your expectations, and striving to be helpful will establish a mutually beneficial relationship between a brand and the media. If a publicist helps verify sources and statements efficiently and on time, a journalist may be more likely to work with you in the future, Hassell noted. 

“This foundational understanding will allow publicists to focus on what their relationship with reporters can bring, instead of looking at what a reporter cannot promise,” she said.

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