PR to Journalist Ratio Breeds Fear
It’s well-known that newsrooms are shrinking but when ProPublica co-published a report with Columbia Journalism Review this month, it brought to light some theories on the implications of a PR-dominant nation. In large part, the report spells out the dangers it perceives in a world where journalists are few and the PR industry is plentiful. “As PR becomes ascendant, private and government interests become more able to generate, filter, distort, and dominate the public debate, and to do so without the public knowing it,” the report says. It also mentions that government and private public relations firms may have the ability to generate more stories as reporters have less time to find stories on their own and outside groups will have more power to set an agenda.
Tom Foremski of Silicon Valley Watcher says he thinks it’s already possible for PR professionals to push their stories through. “Of course it’s happening,” Foremski said. “They’re paid to portray their clients in the best possible light. While journalists aren’t paid to do that, they are paid to write stories that are fair and as reasonably objective as possible.”
Gary McCormick, immediate past chair & CEO of PRSA and current director of partnership development for HGTV, doesn’t dismiss the fact that journalists are much more challenged in the work they’re doing. He does believe, however, that as more journalists are compressed on time, PR professionals with a good reputation who have built relationships can be utilized for good information, research and background. “I think Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays and all the people who helped pioneer this industry outlined that symbiotic balance between PR and journalism,” McCormick said. “And a good PR professional that’s providing transparent, open, objective, balanced information for a client to a journalist is beneficial. They can help with the research around good story ideas. It doesn’t have to be an adversarial relationship unless one of the parties isn’t doing their job well. And I think it goes either way. I can do a great job for my company being objective, and I have a journalist who’s on a mission and has a message they want to deliver without research. We’ve heard about PR flacks and we’ve heard about yellow journalism, so both professions have their challenges.”
PR to journalist ratio
The ProPublica/CJR report mentioned a ratio from 2008 indicating there are three public relations professionals for every one journalist. McCormick says while there has been a decrease in journalists and an increase in the number of PR professionals – including journalists moving to the field – he thinks at the surface, the ratio is misleading because it doesn’t take into consideration that not every public relations professional focuses on media relations. In addition to building relationships with traditional journalists, there also are journalists on a variety of other platforms who inform the public, including bloggers and podcasters. “I think we’re going to continue to be challenged in our profession and in journalism as well, to find that balance in outreach for our companies and clients that meet the needs of the audience,” McCormick said. “As this social media and non-traditional media environment develops, we’re learning a lot of lessons and understanding how to work with them better.”
One of these lessons comes directly from Foremski, who originally asked for the death of the press release in February 2006. In it, he asks PR professionals to make alterations to the traditional press release, most notably asking for links and deconstruction. Today, he says it’s still rare to see journalists employing the tactics he asked for more than five years ago. “I don’t know what the reason is,” he said. “I’m kind of stumped by it because when I first started writing about this it seemed obvious to me. We’re living in the electronic age now, yet they still look the same as if they came out of a fax machine. Why aren’t there links? Why isn’t it deconstructed in some way so I can find relevant information? Especially now, five years later, it seems more like stating the obvious that PR professionals should be making the most of these electronic documents.”
While McCormick says there are PR professionals including links and the like, it can take time for new tactics to be used across-the-board. “I think Tom, in the business he’s in, is an early adopter and he understands how the media environment can be enriched,” McCormick said. “I think we’re seeing more of this being integrated but it’s transitional, much like the entire online presence has been for companies since they started using websites.”
News aggregation websites
Both Foremski and McCormick have noticed an increase in the number of press releases published as news stories, some even verbatim. “I do sometimes see online news titles that have a section where they’re printing press releases straight off the wire,” Foremski said. “And if you know what they look like, it’s obvious it’s a press release. And I’ve seen some reports where they’ve said a large number of readers think they’re news stories instead of press releases, so less-experienced readers might confuse them with news stories.”
McCormick believes the influx in published press releases is due to aggregate news sites, which he says is really big business now. Increasing web traffic is the driver of this craze and Foremski says these methods are used for monetary gain. “It’s become a desperate race between online publications to get as much traffic as possible,” Foremski said. “You have publications like The Huffington Post and so on that are pushing the envelope on how much free content they can get into their publications. Journalists aren’t churning out the press releases written by PR people, the publications are publishing them but it’s nothing to do with the journalists. I think most news sites work with press releases in proper ways to alert them to something that’s happened and they can follow up. I don’t publish press releases and most serious news sites don’t either.”
McCormick’s viewpoint on the industry is that it’s similar to a wild, dangerous area which provided many opportunities: the wild, wild West. “I think the whole industry is changing and I’ve referred to it – and others have referred to it – as the wild, wild West,” he said. “We’re letting things flow and trying to decide what’s going to work out. The consumer’s ultimately going to make that decision. That’s the thing all of us can rely on; at some point the consumer picks what is trusted and reliable.”
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