The intersection of public relations and journalism in the digital age

A conversation with CanWest’s newest Fellow appointment, Ira Basen

Notice from the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) at Western University

“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 [2012] 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.”

See a more complete announcement.

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.

* * *

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).

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24 Responses to “The intersection of public relations and journalism in the digital age”
  1. Great post – thanks to you both for publishing it. Of course, public relations is more than content journalism, but undoubtedly ‘owned’ media is a key area, not least as consultancies can see the revenue potential from producing content. I also wonder how much journalists themselves have spotted this opportunity given the decline of employment in traditional media, alongside the strategic development of PR away from simply media relations. So perhaps we are talking about a specialist hybrid practice here that is effectively just about content production – whether that is for media or organizational clients. Whether that will be a career route into more strategic PR will be interesting to see – although I am doubtful of this.

    As Ira has talked about the history of PR, we seem to be going back in time with PR management in organizations adopting a ‘factory’ attitude (as per Ben Sonnenberg’s agency in NY in early 20th century) to communications whether those be through mediated or direct channels.

    The big question is where this leaves the investigators (interesting the News of the World approach was to use Private Detectives – questionably). Who will fund a more independent and investigative journalism going forwards? Let alone, who will ensure there is intellectual robustness challenging those in power in society – seems pertinent to ask on the day that Gore Vidal has died.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      Heather, I’ve mentioned to you Clay Johnston’s book is a worthwhile read, particularly as he goes into that “content farm” concept in regards to journalism. I seem to recall that Ira Basen also did an article on it—maybe on the CBC website or for a magazine. He hired himself out to write an article for a ridiculously low fee and where he had to get-up-to-speed on a topic really, really fast. You know, a junk-food kind of article. Hopefully he’ll stop in and share a link here.

      More and more of the respected international newspapers are moving into paywall mode, so that will help fund the investigative aspect more. We do need that independence and nutritious content.

      And I don’t believe Ira believes public relations is purely content production, certainly not if you listen to Spin Cycles. This is simply his newest area of study about the intersection.

      Apparently his “brand journalism” article will publish in Saturday’s Globe and Mail. I’ll give you and other readers an heads up regarding the online version.

  2. Interesting read. Think content – consumer-driven by search, by brand interest, by social – seems to becoming the connecting spot between PR and journalism.

    I’m more a purist like Mr. Basen, don’t think you can unbiasedly serve the public, the readers while cashing the brand’s paycheck; you’re a brand advocate, no longer an independent journalist. Also agree that consumers often don’t know/care about their content sources – can’t tell you the number of times I’ve debated w/ folks who didn’t know the sites they read were/are technically, ‘blogs.’ Traditional media relations not going away, no; it’s just becoming more integrated, more digital as the quest for links and SEO builds. FWIW I came out of a J-school (Mass Comm, Adv/PR technically) and a lot of journalism 101 basics were required; not sure if students on the journalism track were required to take PR but it’s a smart idea since yes, they’ll be dealing w/ it every day.

    • Judy Gombita says:

      I’m delighted this interview piqued your interest enough to comment, Davina. Do you think it’s becoming the connecting spot…or is it becoming a divisive line? After all, a company that produces content, theoretically, has less need for external journalism endorsement.

      I understand what you are saying about the frustration regarding content identity and platform credibility. Still, several sites like GigaOm or The Next Web or rabble.ca are their own new hybrid publishing platform and quite credible. What I think is scarier is personal or agency blogs purporting to have some sort of final, all-around expertise…on just about everything PR and social media, etc.. I know I don’t have all of the answers—do you?

      I didn’t realize you were a journalism grad—bonus knowledge part of your comment. I can see how and why this interview would resonate. I appreciate you stopping by and commenting, FWIW.

      By the way, Toni Muzi Falconi liked this interview so much that he’s twisted Ira and my arms to participate in a Skype chat with his NYU master’s in international public relations students in a few weeks, where the students will be formulating the questions. Maybe the journalism students should be invited to attend, too!

  3. Carl Friesen says:

    As a former newspaper and magazine reporter turned PR flack turned content marketer, I’m well familiar with “spin” from both sides. As a PR person, I was simultaneously horrified and delighted to find my news releases produced verbatim in some publications. Maybe that worked because I did my best to write the news releases as i would have written the stories as a reporter. Still, it was a wake-up call to the idea that the traditional news model is showing its age.

    While I now create content for B2B purposes, I depend on having ‘real’ reporters such as I used to be, telling me the news. I don’t want a world in which I rely on people like me to provide information. Sure, I expect that Cisco et al can provide good information on routers and WANs, but I would never trust anything produced by a food company, telling me about nutrition. Or a sports equipment company telling me about how to stay fit. Both would have a strong interest in having me buy their products. What we need is a better revenue model around the provision of neutral, professionally-prepared information. The old model of subscriptions and advertising as revenue generators doesn’t seem to be working any more, as companies go direct to the consumer or business purchaser. I think should be something like a subscription fee, as cable TV now charges, or AOL used to in the mid 1990s.

    Does anyone have a suggestion around how information prepared by skilled professionals who do NOT have a stake in the matter, can be a money-maker?

    • Bob Geller says:

      Isn’t this the same question that the media has been wrestling with for years? I don’t think there are any easy answers, nor do I think that anyone is completely free of bias or ulterior motive (unless the model involves making news organizations non-profit, as some have suggested should be done).

      The reporter who works for the commercial enterprise needs zippy copy and headlines to get eyeballs – they are beholden to the business interests of their employers (and/or want to build their personal brand for some of the same reasons, it can be lucrative). They often have potentially corrupting dollar signs in their eyes, just like the companies you describe above – the marketers and flacks are just a bit more up front about the whole thing.

  4. toni muzi falconi says:

    I have praised Ira Basen’s approach to our profession in previous prconversations posts, so I am uncertain on whether the praise should this time go to how Judy constructed and conducted this very, very interesting post…..

    Back in 1976 I had convinced the then ownership of the Espresso/Repubblica group (two of the better italian publications, one a weekly the other a daily) to integrate ‘how to understand public relations’ in their professional training programs but, helas, the internal journalistic union decided against the idea…. but what I do all the time with students of all ages is to analyse the daily media and seek whose interests their front page article appease to…

    As Ira correctly says journalists and pr’s are both part of the problem and the mostly unaware public is normally the victim.

    Ira also says that journalists have little idea of what pr’s really do except pitch publicity angles to them, while pr’s have a better understanding of what journalists are supposed to do.

    This is a fact that was demonstrated in a research I conducted some years ago (2006) with Chiara Valentini (who now teaches at Denmarks Aarhus University.

    The book in italian (the shattered image) researched how italian journalists and pr’s viewed each other. The result was that while both pr’s and journalists had more or less the same view of journalism, the pr profession was seen quite differently by the two.

    The reason mostly lies in the fact that journalists only speak with pr’s when the latter pitch to them, so this is not surprising. It is of course the fault of pr’s who never pitch their profession (they are mostly ashamed of…) rather than only their client’s or employer’s interests.

    For all those who believe that what goes on in digital media is less sophisticated and evident, take a look at this very recent book by Ryan Holiday: trust me I’m lying (http://www.amazon.com/Trust-Me-Lying-Confessions-Manipulator/dp/159184553X) , even worse than in mainstream….
    Richard Edelman a few days ago posted on this http://www.edelman.com/speak_up/blog/.

    I would also like to caution on the use of the term brand journalism because there are two different interpretations of the term, and it is better that they be distinct.

    The first derives from the fact that today every organization is, in itself, a media organization and therefore requires that organizations use experienced journalists to make sure their media are professionally done (interal radio, tv and mobile newservices, specific stakeholder group media outreach etc….).

    The second instead refers to a growing and increasing trend in mostly mainstream news organizations to ‘arrange’ their media contents in a way to please their owner and advertiser interests.

    The second is the one that I imagine Ira refers to and is seriously flawed and dangerous for the very survival of both our professions.

    The first instead should not, in my view, be considered by pr’s as a threat but as an opportunity.

    Thank you Judy, thank you Ira for this great post.

  5. Judy Gombita says:

    See Ira Basen’s feature article in (the Saturday, August 4, 2012) The Globe and Mail: Is that an ad or a news story – and does it matter which?

  6. Just came across this book review via the International History of Public Relations Conference LinkedIn group which has some interesting points to make about journalism and technology which I felt had resonance to this post: http://www.niemanlab.org/2012/08/christopher-dalys-covering-america-brings-journalism-and-technology-full-circle/?utm_source=Weekly+Lab+email+list&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=67b1dfd53a-WEEKLY_EMAIL&goback=%2Egde_1597207_member_142379636

  7. Judy Gombita says:

    The following article published online on August 10 and in the print edition of the Toronto Star
    on Saturday: Political reporting suffering from effects of ‘churnalism’ by Susan Delacourt.

  8. Ira Basen says:

    Thanks to all of you who commented on this interview. I’m sorry it has taken me so long to respond.
    I think my article in the Globe and Mail on brand journalism addressed some of Heather’s points. Brand journalism does possibly represent the “hybrid” form of journalism that Heather refers to, but the question she raises at the end, about where the funding will come from for independent and investigative journalism remains the critical one. It won’t come from non-media companies who now see themselves as publishers, but there are lots of interesting experiments currently underway that are trying to develop alternative funding models. I’m reasonably optimistic that something viable will emerge from the current malaise.

    As for Toni’s question about the use of the term “brand journalism”, I agree that it can be used to describe different things. Newspapers, broadcasters and blogs can all be considered “brands” in their own right, and therefore, anything produced by them is also “brand journalism”, so I think it has to be used to refer to content produced by companies that were not previosly considered to be publishing companies.

    The apostles of brand journalism like to assert that there is not much difference between themselves and the mainstream media because traditional media has been hopelessly compromised by the desire to keep advertisers happy. Eric Schneider of Totem Brand Stories in Toronto argued that while you’re not likely to see a story about childhood obesity in a magazine published by Kraft (a Totem client), you are equally unlikely to see that story in a traditional magazine that relies on Kraft for advertising. The difference is that one is being transparent with its readers, and the other is not.

    An editor at the Globe and Mail described that argument to me as “self-serving nonsense”, but I’m not so sure. I have no doubt that at the Globe and elsewhere at the upper end of the journalistic food chain, the separation between “church and state” remains intact. But for many struggling trade publications, small town weeklies and daily newspapers, the wall between editorial and advertising has largely disappeared.

    I frequently hear rather horrifying stories from PR people about publishers who, in exchange for buying ads, will essentially allow PR people to write their own editorial copy. And the more desperate these publishers become (and they are quite desperate), the more control they are prepared to cede. This, as Toni indicates, is dangerous for both PR and journalism.

  9. Judy Gombita says:

    Ira Basen wrote a complementary article for the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s premier publication, J-Source, The future of journalism is… branded, which published this week.

  10. Brad Lee says:

    I noticed this interesting conversation via a link in the CPRS LinkedIn discussion group. Thank you for posting it and keeping track of where the topic has appeared in other news media. As a former journalist at the Toronto Star (and elsewhere) and current student in public relations, I want to point out that the boundaries between editorial and advertising, at least in newspapering, have always been somewhat blurry.

    The argument that the main difference between “traditional” journalism and “brand journalism” is one of definitions and characterized by a focus on transparency and objectivity is interesting, though this would seem to boil everything down to a question of ethics and best practices.

    Newsrooms and news media companies explore, and perhaps exploit, these boundaries on a daily basis. The Globe and Mail has a custom content editor, the Toronto Star makes editorial decisions in some sections based on sources of ad revenue.

    Pre-printed “news” packages find their way into daily news sections, without ever being seen by newsroom staff. (There are other content editors in the building!)

    “Directed content” is a step down the slippery slope, where advertisers are able to request that their ads be placed on a page next to a story that relates to their product or service. In the newsroom, we used to refer to them as “unfortunate adjacencies”.

    I appreciate the point that Ira makes in his interview that journalists are often not as well equipped as the PR professionals they deal with every day.

    This is a great discussion to be having now, especially with survey findings that younger audiences seemingly care less about the source of their news.

  11. I am reminded of the practice common in the UK in recent years of promising to include a promotional link in editorial coverage in exchange for access for interviews etc. The approach is to feature a footnote where even the most tangential mentions are often made – for example, perhaps a celebrity article has details at the end of a car they may be driving or whose clothes they are wearing. The Guardian website has a detailed editorial code (http://www.guardian.co.uk/info/guardian-editorial-code) which covers such endorsements and also copy approval – another insidious practice that celebrity publicists in particular seem to evoke.

    Then there are the ‘features’ which seem little more than a plug throughout – this isn’t just in the areas where you expect this (female magazines, motoring titles, music and other entertainment reviews etc). The holy grail for PR perhaps getting top billing for your product being reviewed favourably – but again what’s the value if there is too cosy a relationship or even drafting of copy for cut and paste media use?

  12. I wanted to point out one of the trackback links to the above PR Conversations post as worth a detour for the comments from both Ira Basen and Tom Foremski after an initial clarification discussion between Judy Gombita and that post’s author Tamara Piety. The link is: http://oversoldblog.wordpress.com/2013/07/12/brand-media-vs-corporate-media/

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