Latest research on relationships between journalists and public relators indicates huge perception gap on what pr is about. Our fault?

Relationships between journalists and public relators in Italy, are not as bad as one might expect, according to a thorough research effort by Chiara Valentini and myself, due to be published soon. But the big surprise

comes from the alarmingly huge gap between what journalists believe public relations to be and what public relators themselves believe public relations to be.

This of course -given that journalists significantly contribute to forming public opinion- cannot but have a major impact on the overall perception in society at large of what our profession is today.

Could it not be that, like the cobbler’s children, we have always given for granted that our traditionally intense relationships with journalists was a sufficient reason for them to form a good idea of what we do, while -quite to the contrary- we have instead always used journalists principally as objective instruments to get our client and employer contents and messages across, rather than update them, as we most likely would with other people we truly relate with, on the dynamics and evolution of our profession?

In a way this relates to some points made by Larry Foster’s in his recent Alexander Hamilton’s medal acceptance speech.

Do we really relate with journalists?

And now, let me elaborate on the gap and give some qualifications of the research effort.

Chiara, with my assistance, did secondary research analyzing some twenty similar researches conducted in as many countries over recent years;
then interviewed personally one-with-one twelve senior professionals (6) and journalists (6); and
subsequently developed a highly articulated questionnaire which was put on line by the Italian Federation of Journalists (FNSI) and by Ferpi (the Italian professional association).

Some push mailings did the rest and we collected 562 completed questionnaires (315 journalists and 245 professionals).

One of the ten dimensions analysed (this, mind you, is a huge research..) was the role of the public relator in the minds of the two professions and each participant could select one of the ten offered descriptions.

Won’t bore you with the details but this is the result:

For journalists, the three most voted descriptions were (in order of importance):
– media relations
– organization of events
– product information

For public relators, the three most voted descriptions were (in order of importance):
– develop relationships between an organization and its influential publics
– assist an organization in improving the quality of its decisions by listening and interpreting the expectations of its influential publics
– media relations

I guess this tells it all.

I would very much like to encourage your comments, with a solemn promise to give more info on this highly interesting research in a short while.

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16 Replies to “Latest research on relationships between journalists and public relators indicates huge perception gap on what pr is about. Our fault?

  1. The auto industry, whatever its faults, may be THE industry where reporters best understand the value of excellent public relations people. Steve Harris and Jason Vines are highly respected names in that world. In time, Chrysler’s new management will come to see that they let a true competitive advantage walk out the door.

  2. Toni,
    Good points and I agree with most of them except:
    – There is a leap in your logic. Having journalists have a better perception of our full role does not imply that they will cover the story they are writing about any better.
    If the story is aboit public relations, then i coudl see your point but thsi is rarely the case in my opinion. The vast majority of journalists I have dealt with in my career understand that we are there to present our organisation’s point of view. They coem to trust us because they know we won’t spin to them- at least far less than our politcal masters (I work for a governemnt). The result is that we are seen in my part of the world and in the circles I frequent as facilitators to get facts, offer another point of view and generally helpful.
    It does not matter one iota to me if that journalist has low impression of the profession I am in. Most journalists can make a distinction between pushy PR people who beg for coverage and those who offer genuine value.
    from an association perspective, the only real startegy to adopt is to represent the profession and the only objective that matters to me should be growth. How do you achieve that?
    Some will pursue a visibilty agenda and attract a certain percentage of non members who percieve a certain ‘buzz’ ; others will react if you offer more value in the form of training and credentials; others yet only join to expand their network and get ahead in their careers.
    The reason most people don’t belong to an association is that leaders keep switching strategies and trun off people who try membership but leave after a year or two. The compelling reason to join an association has to be a much more powerful proposition. Licensing or fear of same might do it ! Anything less cataclytic will not move the masses to join. And hence the vicious circle will continue unless we can agree on a concerted set of actions world-wide implemented by all GA associations. That woudl eb an interesting discussion. I am sure there are other models and strategies. just discussing it would be fascinating. I said we mobilize to GROW our associations !

  3. Kaja,
    please send me your paper at, thank you.

    Jean and Frank (and Heather and Brian),
    One of the underlying themes permeating this blog (at least from my personal perspective) is that public relations is a profession; and that, unlike others, the fact that only less than 10% of practitioners belong to a professional association is a huge obstacle to our publics having a fuller understanding of what we do, why we do it, how we do it.

    Mind you, I am in no way implying that if publics had a fuller understanding of what we are about we might have a better overall reputation…
    I am only saying that any professional association should have in its mandate the priority of protecting its members’ stakeholders from
    a) its own members and, in a situation in which 9 out of 10 professionals are not even members;
    b) non member practitioners.

    It is, once again, the old dilemma: should associations represent their members or the profession?

    If it is the first, then there is no reason to argue, as the association is only a private club and bears little relevance for the public interest. If, as most associations purport to be, it is the second then a huge dilemma arises: how may an association represent a profession if it has amongst its members less than 10% of practitioners?

    If you ask members what should their association be doing, the most common answer is ‘improve the reputation of our profession in society’.
    I agree that, given the situation, this is a catch 22 objective: however a true leadership, when faced with a catch 22 objective required by members, will dissect it and argue that there are two parallel objectives:
    a) increase the membership and therefore legitimize the representation;
    b) argue with member’s stakeholders what its members are about and how they are responsible and reliable compared to those who are not members.
    These two objectives clearly feed one another.

    Having said this, and presuming you will agree that, while over the years the increasing fragmentation of publics as well as the decline of reliablity attributed to mainstream media have led us to relate with many other constituencies, journalists and politicians still remain our principal interlocutors.

    The first group, despite its decline, is still and will still be very relevant in forming the opinions of the many publics out here…and this is precisely the reason we relate with them on behalf of our clients/employers.

    I argue that if journalists continue to believe that all we do is fabricate contents about our client/employer interests to pusho-to-them, then we cannot pretend from our associations that they engage in improving our reputation in society, as the latter is in large part the result of what journalists think of us.

    Therefore, if associations do not engage in this then they are failing to address the priority expectation of their members.

    It is not relevant, again in my view, to wine and dance journalists, nor to oblige them (how?) to make an effort to better understand our trade.

    It is however relevant (given the profession that we profess to practice) that we (in this case, our associations again…which by the way are not always run by managers with a professional pr background…) develop contents and arguments which are able to attract the attention of journalists and, once their attention is attracted, engage them in a discussion about the reciprocal roles we play in society today and, by doing this, facilitating in them a better understanding of our activities, which in turn might well improve our reputation amongst our publics.

    Jean will certainly remember a recent president of the CIPR and common and reputed friend who tried to put this item at the top of the Agenda of what I still consider a very well run association.
    At the end of the year of her presidency the item dropped to the bottom of the agenda mainly, I fear, because the technostructure (which, when there is one, totally rules our associations..)did not put sufficient time to think the matter through.

    To cite another example: if my professional association FERPI decides to use our research effort to attract the attention of journalists and discuss with them the outcomes, it is obvious that they will get a better idea of what we do and it is presumable that this better idea will be reflected in what they write about us and therefore this in turn will have an effect on those who read them.

    I dont’ like to use this jargon, but is this not public relations for public relations….?….the pitfall of every professional debate always ends here: where pr for pr is reguarly interpreted in its worst meaning…

  4. Toni,
    To play devil’s advocate here for a minute, you are presuming that changing the way journalists think of us is of capital importance. I don’t agree that it is such a priority for associations.
    As Frank points out, they get what they need from us and don’t want more than to ‘park their cars’. I am sure they are aware that we do things other than taking their calls or pushing a story on them. I am halfway through reading the Italian version you sent me and even with my limited comprehension I can’t see a compelling reason why we should make this perception of our profession a top priority. What would be a concrete outcome of such an initiative assuming we were sucesfull? Would a better comprehension that we spend 85% of our time interpreting public environments and preparing strategies and tactics, counselling management, etc change anything in they way they would write their stories? Woudl they suddenly think we have more influence on the issues they are covering? Maybe I am missing soemthing here but I fail to see why as a profession this is so important. I woudl ratehr focus on building my relationships with media and knowing that they can traust me and I can trust them with what i tell them and vice versa.

  5. Tonu, This my reserarch include different parts – journalists about pr, pr professionalism, pr field identity, pr as a field, and also pr persons and journalists relations in work situations – how much pr is influencing editors, or trying to influence editors. We used both, qualitative and quantitative approach. Most of results are still in estonian, but one paper, which was presented in NordMedia 2007 conference (, is also translated into english. But little summaries are also from other studies.
    what e-mail I’ll use to send you my papers?

  6. I don’t think that either Heather or I disagree with you, Toni. And I know you agree with us that too many practitioners have been running a bad carpark (thank you for that, Heather!).

    As necessary as it is to build better relationships with journalists, while that may improve their opinions of us, will it broaden their perspectives? (Did it do so in the good old days when entertaining journalists was a larger budget item than today?)

    In my mind, that approach is necessary but not sufficient. It will take a bigger strategy to have them see us in a bigger way. And since journalists do tend to focus on their own jobs and needs (just like the carpark manager who made that dumb decision, and like me when I decided to find another parking place), it won’t be easy.

  7. Kaja,
    I am very willing to compare data.
    Do you have an english summary of your work?
    We should have it in January and will publish it also here.

    Frank and Heather,
    I understand your points but I still think the issue is more complex.
    Of course, if all we do when we relate with journalists is push our client/employer stuff, we cannot complain if we are perceived as interested pushers.
    But the question is: should we not develop relationships rather than just push news…? Even if, like Frank, all they might desire from you (if anything at all… because we tend to push much more than they ever ask for…)is product or corporate news…is this a good reason to overwhelm them rather than to open a table to get them to better understand what we really do for organizations?

    And isn’t a professional association there also to ensure that our licence to operate encompasses the many subtleties of our professional practice?
    And please… come on now….do not tell me that public relators are difficult to define or understand…
    Please define a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant and get to grips to the many facets of their work in this world today: there are as many definitions of these professions as there are practitioners….

    I would very much like to hear your view on this….

  8. To pickup on Frank’s point – PR practitioners might also be portrayed better by journalists if more of us got the basics right. Helping them to “park their cars” more easily might the the best first step.

  9. I often fly out of Baltimore-Washington airport. I had a favorite parking lot. Then they started doing oil changes, washing cars, and requiring a membership to park. They wanted a relationship; that’s how they perceived themselves. I wanted only to park my car; that is how I perceived them.

    Obviously, journalists perception of us is based on the services that they want and use. No surprise there. Just as obviously, we might be portrayed better in their columns if we could broaden their perspective. We can’t give up that fight (and personally, I believe it has a lot to do with having a professional body of research-based knowledge, and working from that position of strength).

  10. Hello, i did similar research in Estonia. Maybe we can compare our data somehow?it would be interesting. and I know that in finland and in austria they are studyng similar things – it seems whole europe picture will be soon…

  11. One of the big stories in Canada right now — the other is a Muslim father murdering his daughter because she would not cover her head — features a GErman lobbyist / deal maker who a few years ago slipped a former prime minister 100 thousand dollar bills in an envelope, three times.

    In Canada, this is frowned upon, but, according to the cash-distributor, this is standard practice in Europe.

    So maybe there’s a big difference in PR between your continent and mine.

    In the olden days, I was a big time PR guy here, and yes, I was involved in strategy and opinion-making, and even some of this stuff about

    But now I’m just a partner in a small shop, and our clients, (in addition to the journalists in your study) call us up and ask us to get them into the newspaper, organize a party for them, and get informtion about their products and services into the right hands.

    This week I’m producing a video about how to insulate a house; I’km getting stories placed about a Museum that exhibits Inuit Art; I’m writing a web site for the museum and the insulation company; and I’m up-dating a web site so a client can tell his clients to go look at it.

    No party-planning this week, but we had a meeting yesterday on the topic, to be undertaken next January.

    And when my partner puts on her journalist’s hat and calls PR people at five of Canada’s fifteen largest companies, she’s looking for them to provide good media relations services, give her decent photos, meet deadlines, and get us on some media release distribution lists.

    She and I both think it’s a miracle these people actually get to talk to the heads of the relevant divisions of the companies they work for, and only half of them do a decent job at low-level media relations.


  12. Toni,
    I don’t mind it in Italian. If I struggle with some words or concepts, I would be back in touch. Generally after a while immerssed in my third or fourth language I start to get the hang of it.
    Bien sûr, si c’était en français !!! ou en anglais…

  13. I myself was certainly not surprised by these results of part of our research.

    If anything, I was to the contrary pleasantly surprised of the perception of public relations by our own colleagues.

    However, I do not recall recent public thinking on the profession which linked our public perception so explicitly to what journalists thought of us.

    I presume that at least the first part of the equation (what journalists believe our role to be) is highly similar in most countries.

    Being confronted with this situation, we have at least three options:

    a- accept this as a fact and live with it (stuff it…as they say);

    b- attempt consciously and in a planned way to adopt our own public relations competencies to modify that perception so that it is more similar to what we believe our role to be (this is a mandatory, specific and not generic role, for professional associations…otherwise…what are they there for? I owuld like to see and election of new association leadership which advocates this platform with an ad hoc program…any info on this from anyone out there?);

    c- attempt to bypass our journalist counterparts and communicate directly with our other stakeholders so that they have a more correct perception of what we do, hoping that journalists (as interpreters also of public opinion) will change their own perception in time (and this is also a challenge for professional associations).

    So a combination of b and c are possibly the best possible option.
    The point is how does this agenda item compare to other agenda items in terms of priority?
    Admitting that a professional association has many tasks to perform how high would your rate this issue?
    If I had a say, I would say at the top. But this is only an opinion…

    As for the rest of the research, Jean, I know that Chiara and I will be publishing the whole research in a 40.000 characters piece which will appear in ten days on an Italian magazine (I can sedn you the pdf, but it will be in Italian);
    I also know that the publisher Luca Sossella editore will publish the whole research in the month of April (but again in Italian);
    finally I have agreed with Chiara that we will prepare in January at least three different essays for as many international journals covering most of the work done.
    Maybe, once we get into the english versions we can anticipate something on this blog….

  14. As journalists primarily experience PR in the form of media relations, it isn’t really surprising that this is the extent of their view of our profession.

    Of course, we can help educate them of the wider remit and the way in which we work within our organisations and with other publics.

    Journalists are not alone in this narrow view. A PR student told me recently that their friends studying journalism had been advised they were much better placed to work in PR since they understood what journalists want.

    This is compounded by studies (eg by MORI) which “evaluate” PR departments on the basis of their popularity with journalists.

  15. Toni,
    Not sure I see a huge disconnect here. I am not surprised the relative ranking is different. Journalists have alsway thought that they were or should eb the top preoccupation of Public realators.
    I would be more concerned if these elements were totally absent from the list of one or the other.
    Is there more we can read about this study?

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