Anne Gregory on relationships between public relations and journalism

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.
anne gregory

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.

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15 Replies to “Anne Gregory on relationships between public relations and journalism

  1. Cole, I presume that, as your email address indicates you are at the University of Oklahoma, you are fully aware of the works of Katerina Tsetsura in the area of your master thesis.

    I have also asked Chiara Valentini, who currenly teaches in Denmark, to include in a comment here some other sources of info which you might find useful for your master thesis.

    The research effort I referred to an earlier reply to comments on this post in June 2007, has been completed and published in Italian by Luca Sossella Editore in 2008 with the title Lo Specchio Infranto.

    I also presume you do not read Italian, so very briefly I will summarize the principal conclusion we came to:
    while interviewed public relators and journalists gave us a common perception of what the journalistic profession is about (i.e. the three mostly preferred statements were the same) the two professional samples gave us completely different descriptors of the public relations profession (i.e. for public relators the three main purposes were
    a) to assist organizations in their relationships with stakeholder publics;
    b) to improve the organization’s decision making processes;
    c) to relate with the media
    while for journalists the three main purposes of public relations were
    a) to relate with journalists;
    b) to organizae events to attract the attention of journalists;
    c) to prepare information materials for the media).

    As you may gather, for public relators only the third main purpose of their profession is to relate with media, while for journalists all three main purposes of public relations have to do with relating with the media.

    Our (Chiara who is the main author and I) interpretation is that public relators only relate with journalists when they need coverage for their clients or employers, but do not relate with them to dialogue with them abour their own profession.

    Thus how can we complain if their knowledge of our profession is limited to media relations?

    What is even more relevant is that, as journalists clearly inform the public, it can be no surprise that the public’s perception of public relations is (in the best of cases, of course…) that we deal with the media!

    Conclusion:
    it is our fault (and not of the journalists who rely so much on what we give them) if this is our public perception.

    The research investigates many other dimensions, but this is possibly the most relevant.
    I hope this helps.

  2. Great post and good conversations on the topic. I am actually doing my mater’s thesis on the topic of the relationship between PR practitioners and journalists. Specifically on how state and local government PR practitioners are perceived by journalists and what can be done to better the relationship. Any direction, suggestions, or related articles that any of you can point me to would be greatly appreciated.

  3. Tom – The question about whether PRs want their version to be changed depends in part on the purpose of a press release. If it is to present information for journalists to use as part of writing an article or news item, then value can be added which enhances the original press release. In my area of automotive PR, this would be the case with a new car launch or roadtest, where the journalist’s impression supplements facts and key messages provided by the PR guys.

    After all, why waste resources inviting a journalist on a product launch if he is only going to reprint the press release? In my experience such journalists may be seen as a soft touch, but they and their publications rarely have much credibility with PRs or readers.

    I agree that much PR and media focus isn’t necessarily in the area of adding value. But again, I think even this can be broken down. If a PR practitioner can write a succinct paragraph or two that a journalist can use as it stands (maybe even tailored to a specific publication), that seems valid without compromise to anyone’s integrity.

    That is different to the puff and drivel (soft news) that forms too many releases, which too many journalists (lazy or under pressure) simply reproduce. We might not be shocked if such items are published verbatim as you say, but is that the same as saying they would be disappointed if any value is added by journalists to a press release?

  4. Heather, let me ask the opposite: Do you believe that PRs want their version to be changed?

    Perhaps we’re looking at a couple of different slices of the whole pie. What percentage of all PR efforts are tied to the kind of large-scale, world-impacting events that would, naturally, require journalists to shape a story beyond what is provided by a PR agency or individual?

    I wager that it is far less than the day-to-day product pitches, personnel moves and smaller-scale “news”–and when those smaller-scale items are published with little or no additional content gathered by the journalist, I call that “verbatim.”

    Here are samples of “news” that I just pulled off of one PR Newswire RSS feed from MyYahoo!:

    * Women Open Small Windows of Opportunity Through Glass Ceiling to Global 200 Boardrooms
    * Pacific Gas and Electric Company Offers Tips to Stay Safe and Cool This Summer
    * Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Completes its 2006-07 Sampling Season for Avian Influenza in Waterfowl: No Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza Was Detected
    * Shed Pounds to Ease Foot Pain, Suggests Report From Harvard Medical School
    * ABC Supply Co. Inc. Receives Gallup Great Workplace Award 2007

    All of these are the work of PRs who, I believe, wouldn’t be shocked if the items were published verbatim.

  5. yes, heather. under yarina’s post I added yesterday this comment:
    In fact, come to think about it, if we merged all the conversation we have been at on this blog since its inception on the issue of relationships between public relators and journalists (and we have accumulated, not surprisingly, quite a lot including Ira Basin, Anne Gregory and many others…by the way the post from the Vilnus conference on balck pr is the one which has sofar received more single visits…)someone could well extract the perimeter and possible contents of a ‘framework’ of discussion between the two professions in any country by applying the paradigm of generic principles and specific applications. And this could be presented as a prconversations idea to whichever institutions/media we might believe would be interested in picking it up and expanding the discussion.
    For your info, together with Chiara Valentini (see her recent paper in the journal of communication management on global or cultural perspectives attached some days ago to this blog) I am concluding a highly interesting piece of research on the public relator/journalist reciprocal perception issue in Italy.
    Any volunteers?

  6. I don’t agree that PRs will always want their material to be printed verbatim – not if they recognise and value journalists as having any real credibility.

    I believe that PRs need to get much closer to presenting a version of the truth that can be checked and stand up to inspection – by journalists and the potentially even tougher environment of social media.

    Although harmony may not be possible, it is important for PR and journalist to understand, even respect, each other.

    There should be a basis of trust – yes, we have our own perspectives and agenda, but this should not mean there is dishonesty at work.

    The media and PR practitioners both spin in terms of how they decide to frame the messages they convey. Journalists interpret and present data in the way that suits them as much as PR practitioners do. Let’s not pretend that all journalists work in the public interest, most have commercial pressures also today.

    PR needs to move beyond thinking media can be controlled, and journalists need to acknowledge where PR is helpful to them. We need clear ground rules and more openness about how we can and should work together as appropriate.

    Ideally, information would be presented honestly and objectively to enable an intelligent public to come to a reasoned decision. In reality, interpretations and opinions are presented that seek to influence those decisions. Rather than obfuscating the public’s decision making, the ideal has to be for all communicators to present a perspective that is clear (even if openly one-sided).

  7. Journalists and PR professionals are performing their roles in the process of gathering and reporting information. Don’t try to find a way for them to be in total harmony, because their separate roles require them to be in conflict.

    A journalist (and I was one early in my career after graduating with a Journalism degree) must be skeptical of any source, challenging (at least mentally) any points made by a source. Journalists try to see a “fact” or issue from several angles–with only one of those angles coinciding with the source’s viewpoint.

    As you stated, “‘PRs’ don’t really tell the whole truth, they are always out to ‘spin’ a story to the advantage of their organisation.”

    So a journalist is always going to seek confirmation of “facts” presented, and attempt to find contrarian viewpoints. PRs will want their version to be printed verbatim, and will be disappointed when it is not.

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