Exploring the Relationship Between Sports Journalism and PR: Q&A with The Athletic’s Chris Waugh

Before getting into this blog post, I want to thank @PR_Place for featuring my first blog post on last week’s ‘This Week In PR’. I didn’t expect to see it featured and it was a nice surprise when the notification came in.

PR blog image post QandA

The relationship between journalists and PR professionals is something I’ve seen written about a lot when reading PR books, and blog posts, over the last six months. But one area I haven’t seen written about is the relationship between PR professionals and sports journalists. 


Whether I’ve not been reading in the right places, or whether it just hasn’t been written about, I’m not sure. What I am sure of, is that it’s an area I want to look further into.


Another thing I’ve not seen much of when reading PR blogs is the view from the other side, from journalists talking about working with PR professionals, which is why I’ve made that the focus of this post.


Sports journalist Chris Waugh (@ChrisDHWaugh), who covers Newcastle United for The Athletic, was kind enough to answer questions I put to him about the relationship between PR and sports journalists:


You cover football as a journalist, was there ever a time you wanted to work in-house for a club instead of for a newspaper?

I did briefly write for Newcastle United’s official programme, producing the section on the away club. Essentially I would write 400 words summarising their form, season and history and then profile the individual members of their first-team squad. It was fun to do at the time, although it could sometimes be a little tedious. It was useful for improving my knowledge of the opposition, though.


You’ve previously covered Newcastle United for The Chronicle, how often in that role did you interact with PR people, and how useful were they to you for getting a story?

I covered Newcastle United for The Chronicle, The Journal and the Sunday Sun for more than four years and, during that time, I regularly interacted with the club’s press office and their wider media team. Often when a story about the club broke elsewhere, I would check out the validity of that with the club and push for insight and information. The same was true of transfer rumours and information I may have received tipping me off about something. Often it is important to check with the PR department that your information is correct. Also, if it was a controversial story or one whereby the club deserved the opportunity to be given a right of reply, it was essential to check in with them. In terms of “getting” a story from the club’s PR department, usually they would confirm something I had put to them, but sometimes they would come to me with a positive tale or story they wanted to get out there. In all honesty, aside from the Newcastle United Foundation, whose PR has certainly improved, I think more positive stories from inside the club could and should be told.


Working at The Athletic now and writing more feature pieces than standard sports news, how often do you now interact with PR people and how useful are they to the work you do?

I do not interact quite as frequently with the PR department at Newcastle United, primarily because I write fewer news stories and so I do not need to check things quite as frequently. However, I do still need to check in when it comes to certain articles I am writing, even features, because they still need the right to reply on certain issues and to clarify or confirm that certain things are indeed accurate. I’d say it depends on the information I require or story I’m writing as to how useful they are; they always pick up the phone or reply when contacted, in fairness, though.


Have PR people at clubs ever swayed the way you reported on a story, if so are you happy to give any examples?

I’d say “swayed” is the wrong word. They have clarified certain things and offered context, information and a statement or denial, but that is their job – and it is also my job as a reporter to get their version of events and present their side of the story as well. Club PR personnel try to play down certain stories but, if it is something my editorial team and I feel is a story, we will still write it unless the club can provide evidence to show categorically we shouldn’t.


Do you think the relationship between PR and journalists is different in sport to general news, if so, how and why?

I only briefly covered news during my training so I cannot be certain as to how the roles differ or mirror one another, although I think the relationship is slightly different. In sport, as opposed to general news, often the queries we are going to clubs with are “unimportant” issues relating to transfers or the manager’s job status or whatever. Obviously more serious issues are also addressed but not as frequently as on the news side. For that reason I think the jobs do differ.


Do you see the relationship between the two changing over the future?

Over the past five years or so, PR departments at clubs have grown substantially and I think that will continue. More and more in-house media teams are being set-up and so clubs (in general) are becoming less and less accessible, even to a degree on the PR side. I hope that it doesn’t change and, if anything, the relationship strengthens because having an independent media, even in the sports-reporting world, is vital in my opinion.

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