I don’t know how to do this properly, but I would like to recoup the discussion which has been going on in this blog about this evergreen issue because it seems to me that every comment raises new issues. So I will profit from this very welcome contribution from professor Anne Gregory to Judy Gombita’s excellent report on Ira Basen’s recent remarks at the cprs annual general meeting with a warm invitation to all visitors to give us their own views
It does seem that we are doomed to have an endless debate about the relationship between journalists and PR professionals. The fact is that we have a mutually dependent relationship. The press cannot do its job without PR and PR needs the press. This is the piece Toni refers to that I wrote for Antispin.com
Journalists and public relations people have always had an ambivalent relationship. Simply put, there is mutual dependence, but also mutual caution and that doesn’t lead to a trusting atmosphere.
So why is this the case? Well, again simply put, the press, think that ‘PRs’ are there to block their way to the important people who they really want to talk to. Furthermore, ‘PRs’ don’t really tell the whole truth, they are always out to ‘spin’ a story to the advantage of their organisation. Consequently if the journalist takes them at their word and writes a story based on the ‘PRs’ material which turns out to be less than the whole truth, then it’s they, the journalist, who feels let down and a fool.
Public Relations people on the other hand feel that the press always treats them with suspicion. Public relations staff may try their utmost to provide full information and represent their organisation’s case honestly as they see it. They then are profoundly disappointed when the copy they see appears to have twisted what they have said and their openness has been ‘used against them.’
The result can be an unhelpful circle of insult and withdrawal of co-operation that does not serve either profession or the public well. For example, the Guardian (quoted in Farish 1998) has called public relations the ‘latrine of parasitic information’ and there are regular pokes at public relations people by the press who appear to delight in trivialising the profession. On the other hand, it is well known that offending journalists can be banned from political press briefings or from access to major celebrities if they don’t ‘play by the rules’ being set by the politicians or the celebrity PR person.
An understanding of the pressures on both sides may help to bring some light to the situation.
First the case for the press. About 70% of all public relations effort is devoted to what is called Marketing Public Relations. Essentially this is product promotion. Two major ways that products are promoted through public relations are first, straightforward media relations, i.e., persuading journalists to write about the product themselves or to accept the PRs copy about the product and second, product placement. Techniques used in marketing PR are quite varied from press briefings/conferences/one-to-one’s, to press releases, pre-written features, product sampling and media packs at exhibitions. The process entails “selling-in” the product to journalists. Here is one large source of frustration for journalists. They receive mountains of ‘stuff’ from PRs, often this stuff is scatter-gunned to as many journalists as possible through several channels – post, e-mail and fax. Journalists waste hours wading through stuff that isn’t relevant to them. Furthermore, they then have to field calls from PRs who ring to ask if they’ve received the release/e-mail/fax and who proceed to try to persuade them – usually 10 minutes away from press deadline, that they should use their material, even though it is of absolutely no interest to the publication readers.
The journalist’s problem is compounded by structural changes in the media industry. The burgeoning media environment, with new on-line publications appearing by the hour, brings an insatiable requirement for content and copy. At the same time, pressures to follow a particular editorial line to maximise sales, the downsizing of the media workforce and the requirement to work in a multiple media environment (for example writing for hard copy and on-line versions of the same newspaper, or for TV and radio) means that journalists do not have the willingness or the time to source, check and write as they used to.
The case for the public relations practitioner goes something like this. They are employed by consultancies or by organisations and they are expected to show loyalty to that organisation. They therefore have the same proprietor or editorial pressures that journalists have.
They attempt to represent their organisations in the best light, but very few deliberately try to deceive the media – they wouldn’t last long in their jobs if they did. Sometimes PRs are not kept well informed by their own management and therefore tell the story as they know it is all good faith not knowing what they don’t know.
PRs often work under great pressure, just like their journalist colleagues, especially in crises or when they are trying to meet a press deadline. They get pilloried by the press if they miss a deadline and they also get pilloried by the press if they do not have enough time to check all the relevant facts or get the full story because they are attempting to meet press deadline! Many PRs themselves come from a journalist background and they are ‘tempted’ to act like journalists themselves. The idea is to get the story out as they see it.
Public relations people also feel resentful about the fact that the press are ready to pounce on negative stories, but are notably more reluctant to publish the good news. They are disappointed that journalists do not recognise that public relations does a tremendous service to society by opening up the channels of communication between organisation or campaign groups and the press. They would like some signal that they provide a useful service to the media and that in many cases journalists are more than glad that a PR has come up with a story to fill the page. Many public relations people recognise that some PR practitioner’s walk on the ethical boundary and sometimes slip over to the wrong side, but they resent the media’s hypocrisy in PR bashing when the media itself sometimes uses very dubious practices to ‘get the story’ and abuses the trust and good will invested in them in the supposed ‘public interest’.
However, something must be right with the PR industry after all it is growing at an average of 17% per year and there are now more people in PR than in advertising.
So what does all this mean for the media industry and for society in general?
The pressures on the press and the effectiveness of the PR industry provides great opportunities for organisations. It is estimated that 80% of what appears in the business pages and up to 50% of general news has been generated or directly influenced by PR people. The insatiable appetite of the press for celebrity news and infotainment has meant that celebrity PR has burgeoned and the vast majority of copy for celebrity stories is mediated by PR. Indeed some PRs have undeniable power over the press because they can deny access to ‘A’ list celebrities if journalists are not compliant with their demands for copy clearance or stories of a particular type.
What we are witnessing in many ways is what is call the PR-isation of the media. The independence of journalists can be called into question as they become more dependent on partisan sources, without this being made clear to their readers. This dependence means that their ability to question and analyse is being challenged by public relations practitioners who wield real power.
Furthermore, the media industry itself is complicit. The proportion of news coverage is declining with more and more space being devolved to the purile, voyestic and trivial – the ‘dumbing down of the media’. Lazy journalists are happy to accept pre-written copy without challenge and take the easy option by not checking the facts for themselves or by not finding opposing voices.
Meanwhile they indulge in the easy sport of PR bashing and there is little the PR industry can do given the rules of the press complaints committee where only individuals can take up grievances.
It is time that the representatives of both the press and the PR industry has a serious discussion about the rules of engagement. It is not good for society that the critical faculties of the press are being blunted. Neither is it good that the genuine contribution of PR to the public agenda goes unrecognised. There is a mutual responsibility for a respectful distance to be kept between both professions and an equal responsibility for both to act respectfully towards the other, and that means honesty and integrity must prevail if society is to be served. It is not good that the media regurgitates uncritical, trivial pap. However it is also their responsibility to seek out those sources and stories, often through offices of a good PR, that will open up genuine and informed debate in society and bring into the agenda issues of genuine concern that are life-enhancing.
Yaryna Klyuchkovska June 7th, 2007 | 8:44 am
Excellent post and – wow! – excellent comments. I couldn’t agree more with Ms. Gregory, hers is a very insightful summary of the PR-media relationship.
As for Mr. Falconi’s question: this blog does an excellent job of raising salient issues without endulging in the “dirt.” Our profession, just as any other, need an ongoing debate, and someone needs the courage to expose “the bad and the ugly” and to define the “good.” I’d rather we do it ourselves than let others (e.g., journalists) do it for us.