Q&A With K-12 Education Journalist Christina Samuels

By Hannah Davis

No matter where you are in your PR career, establishing and maintaining relationships with journalists is an incredibly important part of the job.

We sat down with Christina Samuels, the Deputy Managing Editor for The Hechinger Report, to discuss her perspective on working with PR professionals. Christina oversees coverage of early childhood education, as well as K-12 education in the South. Samuels previously worked at Education Week, where she covered topics such as educational equity, special education, early childhood education and school district governance. She also had stints as a staff writer at The Washington Post and The Miami Herald.

This interview provides great insights into best practices on achieving effective communication and continued relationships between journalists and PR experts. Many thanks to Christina for taking the time to speak with us! You can read Christina’s stories for The Hechinger Report here.

Can you briefly tell us about your background as a K-12 education reporter and editor? How long have you been reporting on education topics, and what motivated you to focus on this field?

Right now, I am the Deputy Managing Editor at the Hechinger Report. I oversee early childhood education coverage and also other K-12 education coverage, as needed. Previously, I was at Education Week from 2004-2021. I also covered early childhood there for sometime. Prior, I was covering education at The Washington Post for five years.

One of my colleagues at the Washington Post went on maternity leave and she covered education and so I fell into it in a really nice way. At that time, the Post had a lot of resources to cover one beat, so I was covering just Prince William County schools. I formed a great relationship with one of the principals and could often call him for quotes. It was a nice way to start covering the education beat because I could say, “I don’t understand this budget, can you tell me how this works?” and he would explain it. At that time, the standard movement was just getting started. Kids are interesting; one thing that’s great about education is it touches every single important topic that you can think of. It touches family life, how we deal with each other in society, how we want to raise our kids to be. All of those things just come together in the education field.

Collaboration with PR Professionals

Can you share examples of successful collaborations or interactions you’ve had with PR reps?

In general, what has been most successful is when people have an understanding of my beat, especially when I was writing more. Right now, because I’m an editor, I don’t write directly as much, but I do get a lot of pitches. When people do understand what it is that I write about, and can connect it in larger ways, that is when a pitch can be successful. What often happens is people will see a story we’ve written and they’ll say, “Ah I’ve got a client who or something that relates to what you just wrote,” and I always think, “Well it’s too late now, we just wrote about that”.

The best public relations interactions I’ve had are with people who are thinking like reporters. They’re thinking before the story is written – “what is the story here?” It is always successful when people can give you a tip, not even necessarily about their particular client, but that they can think of a subject matter. For example, here is a subject you might be interested in and also I’ve got some people you can speak to.

Effective Communication

What are some common misconceptions reporters might have about working with PR folks?

I would say maybe our misconception is we don’t always know whether a PR person will be a help or hindrance to getting the story. That probably isn’t the best attitude to go into with anything – wondering how we can get around the PR person is probably not a very useful way of thinking about the relationship. That being said, something that has come up a lot for me is there are so many more PR professionals than reporters. This is a very sad truth. The journalism industry is contracting in a very painful and ugly way so there are only a handful of people in the early education realm. When there’s only 1-3 people in a newsroom covering that specific beat, we get so many pitches and it becomes a lot. There’s probably too much of a level of mistrust, and it would be better for everyone to not assume this from the start.

How can PR professionals best tailor their communications to meet the needs of education reporters?

It’s helpful when PR professionals offer something that I perceive can advance a topic. For example, a hot topic right now is the struggle for parents to find affordable child care – and I get a lot of pitches about this. Someone can say, “Hey, I have an expert who can talk about how hard it is for parents to find affordable child care,” but what is the next part? That in itself is not a story and it’s also a well-covered topic at this point. It’s hard. Journalists are asking PR professionals, “Well, what’s new,” and you’re working with your client who wants to get a particular story out there, so I would imagine there is a disconnect sometimes.

I will always respond to someone trying to tell me that something is new, or just different, or a little twist of a take on it. An example to follow on this one is if you then said, “Parents are struggling to find affordable childcare and where it’s the hardest is infant care. Here’s an organization that is trying to make it easier for home-based providers to get started.” Then I would say that’s a twist on it and we’re going somewhere. As opposed to, “Yeah it’s hard, and here’s an expert who will tell you how difficult it is”.

I will say, and I cannot speak for all, but specifically at Hechinger, we really respond to solution-oriented stories. We definitely want to explore the problem, and honestly some stories don’t have a solution, but I think at least here, really pulling out the, “So now what, what can we do?” That type of thing will get our attention.

What communication strategies do you find most effective when working with PR professionals? Are there any specific elements or information that you consider essential in a press release or pitch related to education topics?

Shorter can be better. There’s a lot to sift through. The sense that someone is writing to me, the Deputy Editor at The Hechinger Report, as opposed to a massive mailing list, is useful. It’s tough to break through as there’s only a few of us. Personalization is key. Elements that can show or demonstrate that you’re familiar with me are important. Knowing our audience is useful – I feel like that is almost more important than the exact length of the press release or starting with a specific salutation.

People who I have a long term working relationship with could say, “Hey Christina, I have this person who seems like they have a whole lot of knowledge on X topic, do you think that’s something you might be interested in?” I don’t mind having that type of back and forth with someone who I already have that relationship with. This is the awful secret – sometimes you can have all the things and have a client who can be the perfect spokesperson with measurable results to back it up, and our newsroom just doesn’t have the bandwidth or a reporter who can cover it. Sometimes it’s just down to the timing. If it had been a month earlier or later maybe the answer would have been different. I hate that it’s so capricious because it would be great to be able to say here’s the perfect recipe but that’s just now how it works.

Advice for PR Professionals

What are some best practices for PR professionals to build positive relationships with reporters of any beat? How can they effectively pitch stories and information to you and your colleagues?

It used to be the norm to meet for coffee, maintaining relationships without trying to pitch anyone a story. You know what the shame is – I feel the sense that Covid changed a lot; I now work from home, and to get me out of my house takes a lot. It is harder now, but I will say friendliness is never a bad thing, especially if you are plugged in. If I were covering early ed and someone said I represent this major early ed player, of course we’ll make time. It’s important for us to immediately see the connection. I’m always happy to talk on the phone. Especially with any major players in the for-profit childcare space. Perhaps it’s good to give people the option to meet for coffee. Some people want to get out of the house, but PR professionals can’t go into these types of meetings expecting something from journalists. Laying that foundation and getting the ground rules out is important. Something that is always enticing to me is you can say, “This can be off the record, but I’d love if there are things that come up in our conversation where I could connect you with people later on, would be great,” so you don’t feel like it’s a total dead end. I think that good reporters should be open to that. There is a mutual understanding here that is easy to navigate.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about the dynamics of working with PR professionals?

The PR professionals that I’ve really enjoyed working with are people who understand what it is that they do. I’m not going to expect someone to have read every single article, but having some insight into our readership, and someone who can think like a reporter in some ways stands out. Think about the story. There is hardly any story that I can write that is just about one person or company or situation; but they can fit into larger contexts. This is where you might say, “How does the person or organization or my client fit into a larger story here? How can they be a part of the larger story?” They aren’t always going to be the star, but they can be a part of a larger topic and narrative, and I think those are the best pitches. It’s even better when we get a freelancer who wants to write the story, however the pitches from freelancers and the pitches from PR professionals are all the same. They should show knowledge of the subject and some knowledge of what our audience is looking for.