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Is the PR-media relationship codependent and toxic?

Is the PR-media relationship codependent and toxic?

Sometimes blog posts within an industry are written that become building blocks for other posts. Christopher Penn over at SHIFT wrote not too long ago about the ratio of PR pros to journalists, which itself was a response to an alarmingly titled piece on AdWeek’s PR Newser that blazed “The PR Industry Has a Big Problem.” The original AdWeek piece by Colin Jordan pointed out that according to numbers issued by the U.S. Department of Labor there are roughly 46,500 journalists in the U.S., versus 57,000 PR Managers and 208,000 PR Specialists. This ratio, he suggests, dooms each journalist to be saddled with 5.7 PR pros throwing unnecessary pitches and phone calls their direction.

Christopher Penn comes back with a reasoned argument noting that there are many people who are writing that might not be classified as traditional journalists, but have as a core responsibility writing about topics that are of interest to PR practitioners.

Then, Kate Finley posted a piece on Waxing Unlyrical that is an excellent defense of media relations—why it is important and why it isn’t going away.

All three posts raise important points about the practice of media relations, and all three are right. Yes, traditional journalists are fewer in number as Jordan notes—particularly those who work for the top-shelf publications Finley means when she talks about the thrill clients get when seeing their names in print. Yes, there are many other venues and outlets that are worth pitching, as Penn notes.

Journalism is changing–rapidly

There are some hidden fault lines or caution zones that need to be kept in mind.

When there are fewer traditional journalists, it’s important that PR pros look to the PESO model, because it will be harder to secure traditional media coverage. This isn’t suggesting that media relations isn’t important, or, as Finley suggests, that PR pros shy away from it because it takes more work or that they have less control over it: it’s a simple recognition that as newsrooms pay more attention to analytics, traditional media relations will change.

As client coverage then moves in part to other avenues to reach target audiences, the symbiotic relationship between reporter and PR person shifts. The dynamic changes and it’s not always for the betterment of coverage. This has been noted in the Silicon Valley media, which recently had a bright light shone on it in the fallout surrounding Theranos. Vanity Fair called out the Silicon Valley press—and in doing so also indicted PR:

“The system here has been molded to effectively prevent reporters from asking tough questions. It’s a game of access, and if you don’t play it carefully, you may pay sorely. Outlets that write negatively about gadgets often don’t get pre-release versions of the next gadget. Writers who ask probing questions may not get to interview the C.E.O. next time he or she is doing the rounds.”

This sort of thing can’t happen unless there’s a change in the dynamic of the relationship between PR and media outlets, and if the balance of power has shifted so much that the press is no longer doing its job (i.e., asking tough questions) then there is a problem. And the only way we get to this point is that the media outlets have become too dependent on the source of their information: so dependent, in fact, that they are concerned about losing access.

Relationship dynamics matter

The apex of this problem has hit a new high, as a magazine feature in the New York Times described how a “would-be novelist” crafted the narrative and sold the media on President Obama’s nuclear arms agreement with Iran. The piece is about Ben Rhodes, but some of the outcry has been about what public relations means and what the relationship between the media and the person pitching the story should be. Salon, ever prone to understatement, refers to the “Orwellian” revelation in the NYT piece that the relationship between the government and the press is “cozy” when it should be “antagonistic.” The piece then goes on to proclaim that “The line between PR and propaganda has always been a thin one.”

The Salon piece then goes on to describe the all-out mess that journalism has become, noting that news outlets have cut foreign bureaus and seasoned reporters, and are now left with a handful of very young reporters who depend on their sources to provide them with information, rather than having the background necessary to understand issues and ask probing questions.

The Golden Egg is credibility, so making the Goose sick and weak isn’t smart

There are common threads through all of these pieces: Media coverage is important. There are fewer traditional journalists.  Those who remain are under increasing pressure to produce content that sells. Good relationships with the press mean coverage, good press coverage means access.

All of this put together is potentially damaging to the overall credibility of the news—when credibility is the main commodity public relations professionals are seeking.

It’s a little too easy, I think, to say that these problems are confined to government, or confined to Silicon Valley. In many ways, these issues will affect all of us in the PR industry, and the question is how we make sure the relationship between PR and the media is a healthy one, rather than a codependent toxic one that ultimately damages the credibility of both beyond repair.

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the Director of Marketing Communications for CARMA. She is also the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for more than 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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