What the Hell is Public Relations?

Posted in: Featured | By: | July 13, 2009

I have lately been pondering the distinctions between public relations and journalism and, as usual on most topics, find myself increasingly baffled.  These differences are getting more difficult to discern, actually, and my sense is that public relations practitioners are far out-performing reporters.  We can blame this on the decline of revenue in the media but that is probably only part of the cause. After more than two decades in journalism and one decade as a senior-level PR consultant for a global agency and as a sole proprietor, I consider myself qualified to offer a bit of a deconstruct on these two industries.

The challenge for PR practitioners has always been to find out what it is that is wanted by journalists. Of course, we are often viewed as hacks that are pushing out information that is of little or no interest.  I understand the perspective; I generally preferred to avoid dealing with PR types when I was a reporter.  However, I never failed to listen to what they had to say.  I took their calls, read their emails, and even scanned their press/media kits and, on occasion, I found myself a nice story.  My skepticism was great but I was often guided to useful information.

Reporters, in fact, cannot live without PR.  In politics, they rely on media spokespeople and communications consultants to help them understand a candidate’s evolution and position on various issues.  They ought to do the same in business but are often dismissive of any story pitch that comes from a company because it serves the corporate and shareholders’ goals.  The parallels between business and politics PR are so obvious that it becomes almost hypocritical when a journalist laps up political spin from a practitioner but ignores communications from a business expert.  This obfuscates the very real notion that what serves a politician’s ambitions can also help a journalist gather stories just as a business facilitating an idea or a product can help a reporter while also enhancing a company’s stature.

So why doesn’t this happen more?  Where is the disconnect?

I suspect a number of causes for a breakdown.  First, there are many more businesses and institutions in the U.S. than there are reporters.  They are undoubtedly overwhelmed with email pitches and phone calls and snail mail press kits (yeah, I heard some people still do those). In one of those organized conference calls where PR types and reporters get on the phone with each other and describe their perfect worlds, one journalist with a major publication said he didn’t want to be pitched any more except on Twitter.  This means the de-evolution of the pitch has gone from a phone call and/or press kit, to an email pitch, to getting so many emails that the reporter just reads the subject line, and now down the 140 characters of a “tweet.”  The tweet-pitch?

Reporters have long been overworked and underpaid.  In the downsizing of the business wrought by the internet, there are fewer reporters and those that remain have greater responsibilities, often with less pay.  Even if they never answered a PR pitch their platters would remain full with work.  But that doesn’t excuse them from at least scanning a pitch because there are always damned good story ideas that get overlooked just because they arrive at an inbox from a PR hack.  Aren’t they missing a few good ideas?  Or are they just sick of getting blasted by email?  I keep wondering about what I would call the “HARO Effect.”  Peter Shankman’s wildly successful Help a Reporter Out service is read by an estimated 80,000 subscribers and I keep pondering how much email is received by journalists that post on HARO asking for sources.  Do they have time to scroll through all of those responders that hit their inboxes?  Maybe HARO will have jumped the shark when it becomes much more effective for advertisers than it is for journalists and their sources.

Let me get a tad anecdotal about the challenges of communication between journalists and PR professionals.  A company in which I have a particular interest (http://doctors.s3.com/) has developed a technology that practically eliminates Medicaid fraud in the physician and provider eligibility sign up process.  The software matches numerous fields like name, address, identification numbers, and any other information against several critical databases, which include criminal background checks, OIG, unpaid child support, and then red flags the unqualified.

In the midst of a national health care debate that includes much complaining about fraud, it seems like a technology of this nature might be of interest to reporters.  I have made it a practice of not sending out emails to reporters every time a client comes up with a new product because it devalues the information I am providing.  But this technology seemed to be a natural for a story.  I am certainly qualified to make that assessment because, as I mentioned, I was a reporter once (and young) and was always hungry for new ideas.  I sent a brief summary email of the technology and a link to a page where reporters could test its utility.  The email went to over 300 health care writers at top newspapers, magazines, and health care publications.  I got one response: “I’ll take a pass.” I followed up with a few reporters on the phone and got, “Yeah, I saw it, didn’t have time to read it, just too busy,” as my only form of clarification.

Feel free to dismiss me as a whiner who doesn’t know what he’s doing or is talking about but I’ve been up and down the street a time or two, have been to several county fairs, ridden on multi-engine airplanes and have even traveled to Canada.  Are reporters that busy?  That disinterested?  Is lazy a possibility?  I’m hard pressed to believe the Medicaid technology is of zero interest when fraud and health care are at the top of national news agendas.

As journalism struggles to find its new form and revenue model, it seems this would be a good time for the industry to use professional PR types to assist them in gathering information.  Yes, they are delivering only one side of a story but the critics line up just as quickly as the promoters so there’s not too much work to do when assembling a narrative.  Reporters can still be cautious and skeptical even as they are being sold ideas by PR types.

Or maybe I’m confused.  I’m a hybrid of a PR guy and a reporter.  I’m torn asunder by conflicting forces.  Hey, maybe that’s a story?  PR guy vents angst on blog while acting all reporter-like?  I’ll pitch it….

“Thanks for the idea.  I’ve forwarded it to our correspondent who covers former reporters turned into PR guys.”

6 Comments for this entry

  • Jack Holt

    As another person with a particular interest in a company, I think reporters are being increasingly “disintermediated” by the people’s media.

    The “United Breaks Guitars” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_X-Qoh__mw) is a very current example. Would have made a great story. But too late for old media.

    In the end, like industry analysts, I just don’t think it matters that much and it looks like you made the right career move 10 years ago.

    And not to put a stick to it but it’s “PR”; not Reporter Relations.

  • Ross Ramsey

    Having been both a biz and a political reporter, I can tell you that one problem with many PR folks is that they give the same weight to their good and bad pitches. There’s often no difference between, “Hey look, this is right up your alley,” and “Hey look, I have a client who needs to be in your publication.” The best flacks are the ones who sort these things out and don’t waste a reporter/editor’s time. They suffer for what the bad flacks do to those same journalists….

  • Jim

    I agree completely, Ross. I never wanted people wasting my time, either.

  • Ken Vest

    I agree with every thing you say but think you’re making this too hard –PR -communications -Public Affairs -was and always will be writing – shapping – telling your client’s story. On any given day there are going to be more interesting stories –The Kent Hance Senate campaign is short one camera crew in Beaumont because of a drowning in the bay.

    Your description of problems in the legacy media are right but you left one out –the declining news hole –fewer reporters doing more with less space

    –except on line and in broadcast.

    PEW found that as more consumers migrate to the Internet Local TV is still the most popular source of news in America (51%) (Remember Omaha in the 80s? Small appliaacnes what about ’em?)

    –So remodel your pitch for the locals –I have to believe Medcaid rip offs will find a nice home there –of course your pitch may have to be a little hyperactive –screaming tag lines and all –but they can find some local bad guys–right?

  • Skywalker

    It’s all about the relationship … but you know this already. No matter how interesting or boring your pitch and associated story angle, if you have an established relationship with a reporter/editor, chances increase exponentially that they’ll at least read your email and probably reply. No relationship in place, and a mass email to 300 reporters will almost always yield the same results — little to no response.

    I tend to believe reporters more today than I did several years ago with their “i’m too busy claims.” Reduced staff = increased beat coverage. Social media = more channels for which they have to provide content. A print reporter back in the day only had to meet deadline with a single story. That’s not busy. Reporters today have to write their story for print, then blog about it, then make sure their twitter feed is updated, then upload a video to YouTube, then record a podcast, etc. etc. Today’s reporters certainly have more of an argument that they’re spread a little thin. They’re busy feeding the machines that perpetuate our ADD culture.

    I’ve also found, however, that when a reporter has more content channels to fill, your chances increase that they’ll be interested in your “news.” Very likely that they won’t write an all out article about your topic, but they may be interested in including a mention in their blog, etc. In this sense, one could argue that today’s media model presents more of an opportunity for PR folks.

    Last observation — Email is still the killer app. Any reporter who claims “i’d rather just receive pitches via Twitter” is just trying to protect their inbox and reduce the number of pitches they get. You think breaking through the noise via email is difficult, try getting noticed in some stranger’s twitter feed. Gimme a break.


  • world clock

    What the Hell is Public Relations? MooreThink.com – just great!

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