Q&A with K-12 Education Journalist Elizabeth Heubeck: Working with PR Professionals for Effective Collaboration
By Colleen Martin
One of my favorite parts of my job as a PR professional is cultivating a strong rapport and relationship with various reporters, where there is mutual respect and trust between us. They aren’t just a person on the other end of a transaction (pitch) to “win” coverage for my clients, but human beings with families, stresses, pressures, deadlines, and, no doubt, unique and interesting backgrounds that helped them get to where they are today.
However, if you ever read the “Bad Pitch Blog,” which puts PR folks on blast on X (Twitter) for often almost comically poor behavior, it can often seem like PR and journalists are like frenemies with dissonant interests. But dig a little deeper and you will find that the best PR professionals know how to build trust with journalists, deliver them incredible sources and stories worthy of their time and energy, and understand what the key ingredients are to help journalists do what they do best: tell a great story, with speed.
I recently had the honor of interviewing Elizabeth Heubeck, a staff writer for Education Week, one of America’s most trusted resources for K-12 education news and information. Elizabeth, who covers education angles and intersections in significant news events, cultural phenomena, and high-demand topics and issues, and I recently collaborated on a few stories, which were truly great pieces.
A big thank you to Elizabeth for taking the time to conduct this interview with me! You can find her latest stories in Education Week here: https://www.edweek.org/by/elizabeth-heubeck.
Can you briefly introduce yourself and your background as a K-12 education reporter?
My career has been a mix of marketing and journalist writing. I wrote about education and children for most of my career; I had a stint writing for a parenting outlet and wrote a lot about children’s health issues earlier in my career. I joined EducationWeek four years ago and have only been a full-time employee for the last year. I am considered an enterprise reporter, which means I can write about whatever I want.
What motivated you to focus on writing about education?
As a parent and spouse of a lifelong educator, I have always had an interest in education. I thought early on I would become a tutor to help kids with reading but I ended up writing about education instead.
Collaboration With PR Professionals
Can you share examples of successful collaborations or interactions you’ve had with PR reps?
I have been fortunate to have many successful interactions with PR people, who respond quickly, understand whom I need to talk to, and quickly connect me to the right people. Everyone is on a deadline, and we typically only have a few days to submit each story. It can be a catch-22 though, some days, we only have a 1-2 day turnaround, and if you want to make the story compelling, it usually requires talking to an actual person rather than regurgitating data over email. Sometimes, there isn’t enough time to make that happen. That’s when a PR person can be immensely helpful. They have their finger on the pulse and can connect us to folks fast.
What are some common misconceptions reporters have about PR people?
What I hear the most from my colleagues is that PR folks are like annoying salespeople. The woman who shares a space with me told me that one day, she walked away from her desk for two hours, and returned to 900 emails, mostly from PR people. That’s not an exaggeration.
When you are on deadline and under the gun, it can be easy to overgeneralize that ALL PR people hound you. Often, we just hit the ‘delete’ button – probably 60-70% of emails get trashed. Many of them aren’t targeting the right person. I keep getting emails about the U.S. Coast Guard. News flash – I don’t write about the Coast Guard!
What communication strategies do you find most effective when working with PR professionals, such as pitches (length), press releases, research, etc.?
Phone calls have gone by the wayside. I have actually never received an unsolicited phone call from a PR person. What is effective, beyond a tight, well-written, short (couple of paragraphs) pitch that is targeted to what I write about, is getting ahead of trends; now that’s a godsend. Sometimes I will receive a pitch on a topic, immediately after I wrote about the same thing, what your industry calls “rapid response,” but if you aren’t sending me a unique angle or saying something different, then why would I write about it again? Take our partnership to the next level by helping me get ahead of a trend. If you have a relationship with a reporter, the occasional phone call is okay – but cold calling is usually a waste of time.
Advice for PR Professionals
How can PR professionals best tailor their communications to meet the needs of education reporters?
At the bare minimum, know what we cover. I would also invite PR people to reach out and say, “hey, what are you covering in the next few months?”
How far in advance are you planning stories?
I will put story ideas in buckets based on timing and typically work 1-2 months ahead. I might have something planned for this month, and have other ideas that I will file away for a future month.
Are there any specific elements or information that you consider essential to a story?
If you have background information on a topic that is super easily digestible about a product/service/curriculum, so that we can easily refer back to it – that is phenomenal. We need strong sources, especially educators that can vouch for something working well.
What advice do you have for PR professionals looking to build positive relationships and trust with reporters?
Keep your communication targeted and avoid bombarding reporters with constant pitches. Less is more! If you are in a stage where you are supporting a reporter with a specific story, identify strong sources at the onset and make introductions in a timely manner.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers about the dynamics of working with PR professionals?
Know that timing is incredibly important for us – we are almost always under a time crunch. Put yourself in the position of a journalist, “What would I want to get out of it?” If you do those things, it can be a really phenomenal synergistic relationship between us, or really annoying. It is critical to be super responsive. Journalists who have flipped to PR really get it.