Advice: Working with Handlers


Russell Bishop (centre, back) with Curtin’s graduating class of 2021

Whether you simply aspire to be a reporter or you’ve been a journo for half a lifetime, talking to ‘media handlers’ is almost an everyday occurrence. Whatever they call themselves: PR person, media liaison, comms manager, departmental spokesperson – they’re the gatekeepers who must be won over to get access to newsmakers and important information.

But here’s the thing: student journalists are at a distinct disadvantage to paid reporters because … well … and this is hard to swallow … you’re the lowest form of life in the 24/7 news ecosystem and you can be easily ignored or dismissed outright.

The overwhelming majority of media handlers are generous and helpful with journalism students but much depends on how you conduct yourself. If you’re disorganised and unclear, high handed or demanding, your chances of getting what you want for that important assignment diminish.

We asked three Curtin successful Journalism graduates who’ve been reporters but now occupy important gatekeeping roles with big organisations for their advice on how to make the best impression possible and to get the information and access you need.

Ben Hennessy. Photo: Supplied.

Ben Hennessy works for the WA Department of Premier and Cabinet, where he is the senior media adviser to the Minister for Housing, Lands, Homelessness and Local Government. Ben graduated from Curtin in 2012 and has worked as a journalist with Prime7 News, Nine Network Australia and the British Broadcasting Corporation, and as a media adviser and National Media Manager for the Bureau of Meteorology. 

Firstly – I get it. I remember my first radio news class and picking up the phone to ring the media/PR team at an organisation. It can be daunting first time around, and it won’t always go smoothly. But practice makes perfect (or at least you’ll be more comfortable). So don’t be deterred if a call doesn’t finish how you expect or want.

My top tip is preparation. I am not talking about hours of planning on how you’re going to approach the call – but spend 20 minutes doing a bit of research on the topic. Hit up your old friend Google and read a few previous news stories on the topic. You’ll especially want to know the views of the organisation or person you are calling. If you can express in the phone call that you understand the topic and the organisation’s position on that topic, I can guarantee you’ll have more success.

I also recommend keeping your expectations in check. Is it likely you’re going to get the Commissioner of Police or the Premier for a quick chat? You can always try. There are plenty of great community groups doing fantastic work that would love the opportunity to sit down and give you their views on particular issues.

If you’re unconvinced by my suggestion not to target the high profile big hitters – good for you, you’ll probably go far! But if you’re going to go down that path, keep your request short, unambiguous and to the point. Media teams are generally pretty time poor, and if they have to try and decipher what it is you want, they’re probably going send the request to the bottom of the pile.

Jess Keily. Photo: Supplied.

Jess Keily is the Communications Manager at WA Cricket, where she leads the Digital, Media and Communications Team for the Perth Scorchers, WACA Ground and WA Cricket. Jess graduated from Curtin in 2013 and has worked as a journalist for GWN7 News, Nine Network Australia and Network Ten. She has been with WA Cricket for five years in a number of different communications roles.

Let’s start off with something easy that I know you’ve already been told … don’t send one email and expect us to get back to you.

As Communications Manager at an elite sporting team I get around 100 emails a day, on a quiet day, all requesting us to organise something ASAP, so you might not be a priority at the time. Give us a call, explain who you are and what you’re after and a bit of banter never goes astray. Make sure you give us all the details we need to know in a clear and concise way so it’s not hard for us:

  •  Who do you want to interview? (always give option a, b, or c)
  •  When do you need to do it by? (more than 24 hours’ notice is best)
  •  Where or how do you need to do it? (phone, in-person or Zoom)
  •  Where will it be published?
  •  What’s your story/angle in a one liner?

THEN you can follow up with an email or text. If we don’t organise it quickly and your deadline is coming up, we will not get offended if you follow up … trust me, we’re used to getting peppered by journos non-stop!

Remember, we’ve all been in your position so we are (usually) willing to help where we can.

Robert Herrick. Photo:Supplied.

Robert Herrick works with the Cattle Council of Australia as communications manager. Rob graduated from Curtin in 2008 and has worked as a journalist with ABC Sydney, Canberra and Alice Springs, Channel Nine Perth and as a media adviser in the Turnbull and Morrison Governments. 

Uni will give you a fairly accurate compass when it comes to media ethics and principles, but they will come under pressure throughout your career. You must protect these standards.

Developing a reputation for upholding your principles will lead to your contacts placing trust in you which is a precious asset in journalism. Journalists are often tempted into compromising their standards to get an exclusive or to simply have a story. I’ve been threatened with the retribution of a bad story more times than I can count. If you do this you are gambling with your career and undermining no one, but yourself. Professionals who deal with journalists typically do not reward bad behaviour, but they do work proactively with the journalists they trust, which ultimately leads to exclusives.

You will have regular conversations with insiders. Often, they will explain on background why they won’t comment on something. Ask yourself ‘does their reasoning stack up’, ‘what does the public need to know’ and ‘is it better the public doesn’t know this?’ Sometimes it is in the public interest not to know something, that is why court suppressions exist. Your contacts might not be happy with everything you publish but will be far more understanding if it has a clear public interest.

Always honour your word to keep conversations off the record. Always protect your sources and don’t leave a breadcrumb trail leading back to them. Take the time to understand what information someone can give you and why. Be careful what information you volunteer for publication because if you tell your editors something that you are not able to publish, you can find yourself in a precarious position between your principles and your employer.