The intersection of public relations and journalism in the digital age
“On behalf of the FIMS appointments committee, I am very pleased to announce that Ira Basen has been appointed our CanWestl Fellow for 2012-2013. Mr. Basen will take up the fellowship during this coming fall  term….
During his tenure as CanWest Fellow, Mr. Basen will be teaching a graduate elective, “The Future of Journalism in the Digital Age,” and he will be pursuing research that brings together his interests in the future of news in the age of social media, the growth of ‘brand journalism’ and the future of local news.”
On a steaming hot July 2012 afternoon in Toronto, Ira Basen and I sweated our way through some interesting 21st Century questions about the intersection of public relations and journalism—areas of which have been of particular research and contemplative interest to him over the past decade.
Judy Gombita (JG): Congratulations on receiving the research and teaching fellowship! As I’ve indicated elsewhere, I first became acquainted with you following the broadcast of your six-part, award-winning Spin Cycles series for CBC Radio and a related presentation at a CPRS Toronto AGM, but it’s only today that I’m asking you how that series came about.
Please tell me, how did you first become interested in studying public relations in depth?
Ira Basen (IB): I worked in the radio current affairs department at the CBC for many years, and I think anyone who is in the business of booking politicians, business leaders, top bureaucrats, athletes—or just about anyone these days for a radio or television interview—can’t help but notice how many people have been media trained and how skilled many of them have become at getting their message out and steering the interview in the direction they would like it to go. So I began to get interested in the growing influence of public relations in the packaging, production and presentation of news and information.
I pitched an idea to the people in charge of training at CBC Radio that I should develop a one-day workshop about “spin,” and I should go around the country talking to CBC journalists about how PR is becoming more powerful and we needed to do something about it.
Surprisingly, they gave me the green light to do that. But as I started to develop this workshop, I began to realize that my initial concept was flawed.
I had been looking at this as a tale with clearly identifiable white hats and black hats, but I realized that the story I needed to tell was not us versus them (i.e., journalism vs. PR) but us and them; that what these journalists needed to know was not how evil public relations practitioners were perverting the news, but about all the ways that we, as journalists, were becoming enablers of spin rather than warriors against it, and how we were part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
For example, our obsession with speed and “breaking news” played right into the hands of people who were looking to get their story out without a great deal of scrutiny, and that didn’t serve our audiences very well.. This didn’t always go over well during these workshops. The need for speed and the lusting after “scoops,” no matter how dubious, is part of the genetic code of most journalists, but we pay a price for that.
I also found that most journalists were largely ignorant of what public relations was and how it worked, and were content to dismiss PR people as spin doctors and paid liars. I figured if I was going to talk about PR, it would be a good idea to get beyond the myths and clichés. I wanted to take public relations seriously and study its history and how it actually operated, so I started going to PR conferences, getting to know PR people, and reading some of the really interesting books about public relations.
JG: Not to imply that all of your work since Spin Cycles concerns public relations, but a lot of it—in particular your radio documentaries—do seem to include a significant public relations component or consideration. In fact, I posit the argument that you are uniquely situated in North America (perhaps the world) as a journalist who does not work for a PR industry media outlet, yet consistently explores the impact of changes and trends on public relations as it relates to telling stories (or as we prefer on PR Conversations, the organizational narrative).
Is this deliberate? If yes, why?
IB: I’m interested in the future of news and journalism and the different ways that people receive information and the places they get it from. You can’t really remove public relations from that discussion, whether you’re talking about the stuff I referenced above, which I examined in Spin Cycles, or the growing influence of social media, which I looked into in News 2.0, or the critical role of SEO, which I explored in Engineering Search [see Hour Two] and, more recently, I’ve been examining “brand journalism;” what happens when all companies become publishing companies.
All of these sit at the intersection of journalism and public relations, so I guess in looking at how journalism is evolving I need to look also at how PR is evolving, because the two are inseparable.
[See Ira Basen's feature article in The Globe and Mail : Is that an ad or a news story – and does it matter which? Also, on J-Source, The future of journalism is... branded]
JG: In Clay A. Johnson’s book, The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption, he bemoans the erosion of the journalism profession, indicating that (according to the USA’s 2008 Bureau of Labor Statistics at the Department of Labor) PR practitioners now vastly outnumber journalists (and that the average journalist earns 67 per cent of what the typical PR person does). As a result:
… [American] reporters are suffering from information obesity themselves. For every reporter in the US there are more than four public relations specialists working hard to get them to write what their bosses want them to say. That’s double what there was in 1970. Journalists are assaulted with press releases stuffed in their mailboxes, polluting their email inboxes, and pouring out of their fax machines, full of pitches, sound bites, and spin.
In an effort to cut costs, journalists often become more filters than reporters, succumbing to the torrents of spin heading their way, and passing on what’s said by the scores of PR consultants. Rather than report the news, they simply copy what’s in a press release and paste it into their stories. It’s a kind of commercially advantageous and permissible plagiarism called churnalism.
Do you think it is because of churnalism that one of your newest areas of study and interest—brand journalism—has resulted, whereby companies are now hiring journalists (often new graduates out of universities such as Ryerson) to be in-house journalists, rather than employing public relations-trained practitioners?
IB: I think churnalism is a serious problem for journalists and readers, too, although the latter are probably largely unaware of the extent to which the “news” they are reading is the product of public relations, rather than the independent investigation of a reporter.
But I think the rise of “brand journalism” is driven to a large extent by search engine optimization (SEO). Companies know that in order to rank highly in search results they need to be supplying a constant stream of high-quality content that goes beyond sales pitches and traditional marketing communications. Organizations need to develop “stories” around their brands, and they believe journalists are better equipped to do that than people trained in PR.
JG: What do you think are the advantages and dangers to both journalism and organizational public relations regarding brand journalism?
IB: Brand journalism’s success is rooted in the fact that people today are increasingly ignorant and/or indifferent to where their online content is coming from.
For example, if you are interested in reading about issues around computer networking, cloud computing, etc., you might be as likely to go to a good brand journalism site like The Network, developed by Cisco, as you are to go to a site published by a traditional ad-supported media outlet. Cisco has hired a lot of experienced and knowledgeable journalists to write for its site. Many of them are people who were downsized out of mainstream media jobs. Some companies have given these individuals the title of “marketing journalists.”
I’m a purist, and I think you can either be a marketer or a journalist, but not both.
And as good a job as they might do, I still believe there is a fundamental difference between content provided by a brand and content provided by an outlet that holds journalistic independence as one of its core values.
But as times become tougher for mainstream media, that independence continues to erode. That is bad for everyone.
JG: Even if the term “marketing journalist” is imprecise, perhaps a permanent new (hybrid) role is being created. If yes, in future what university department is best suited to educate brand journalists: public relations/mass communications or journalism?
Given that you teach in both areas, I would think your viewpoint is relatively objective.
IB: I know there are schools like Ryerson, where the School of Journalism tries to steer clear of anything to do with public relations (although they let me teach my course on “spin” as an elective every other year) and then there are schools like Western where aspiring journalists and communications people are all in it together.
I believe journalism schools need to do a better job of educating their students about public relations. There are at least two reasons why:
The first is that more than half of those students probably will wind up in some kind of non-journalism communications job, and it would be nice if they knew something about the history, standards and practices of PR before they got there.
And the second reason is that for those who do get a job in journalism, they will be dealing with public relations practitioners every day, and it would be useful if they knew more about it.
In general, I think PR programs do a better job educating their students about journalism than journalism schools do educating their students about PR, and I think that is detrimental to the education of journalists.
JG: If brand journalism becomes the norm, particularly related to B2C marketing PR (whereby third-party mainstream media validation becomes less important), in what areas of intersection will organizational public relations and journalism continue to be determined independently and/or intersect? I can see shareholder/stakeholder value and crisis communication as obvious examples, but can you think of others?
IB: I think that in spite of the rise of brand journalism and social media that allows the traditional gatekeepers to be bypassed, old-fashioned earned media will remain important for a very long time. The “third-party endorsement effect” is still powerful.
You are usually still better off with a positive article in the Globe and Mail than you are with a blog post or YouTube video, no matter how many hits you might get.
In other words, traditional media relations as a function of public relations is not going away.
JG: Finally, in your new CanWest fellowship teaching position for the graduate elective at Western, “The Future of Journalism in the Digital Age,” do you think you will be spending much time on the intersection of journalism with public relations?
IB: Yes, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned above, it seems hard to imagine how you can talk about the future of journalism in the digital age without talking about that intersection.
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Articles that reference this post
Political reporting suffering from effects of ‘churnalism’ by Susan Delacourt, Toronto Star
Thank you also to the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s J-Source publication (where Ira Basen is a contributor) for helping to publicize this interview. J-Source also published its own CanWest Fellow announcement from Western University about Ira Basen. The Toronto Star’s senior political writer, Susan Delacourt, was also tremendously influential in her (third-party) endorsement tweet about this interview, which spread across Canada and beyond. This interview also inspired her to focus on political “churnalism” in her weekly Saturday Toronto Star column (see above).