|On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney|
|Media relations strategies may not
be keeping pace
with changing practices in journalism.
|© 2011 Michael Turney||Table of contents||Practicing Public Relations main page||About the author|
Long-time journalists and news-lovers bemoan the erosion of traditional news values, the rise of celebrity journalism, the loss of objectivity, and the explosion of personal opinion presented as "news". Even those who don't fully agree admit that journalism isn't as serious-minded as it once was, certainly not when most newspapers run sports stories on the front page, newscasts lead story is who was kicked off Dancing with the Stars, and Nightline, once a bastion of serious in-depth coverage, devotes segments to celebrity chef "plate lists" and popular performer "play lists."
Despite this, many media relations books continue to tell public relations practitioners to treat reporters as high-minded Walter Cronkite wannabes when the truth is that most of today's rising "newsroom stars" have no idea who Cronkite was or how he reported the news.
Now may be the time to rethink how we work with reporters and editors.
Media relations - all of the different ways public relations professionals interact with the mass media on behalf of their employers/clients - has always been an integral part of public relations.
In an earlier article about media relations I wrote "media relations should be a mutually beneficial two-way street" because I believe public relations practitioners and journalists should work cooperatively to provide media consumers with the most accurate and reliable information possible. While I realize this is a bit more idealistic than many people want to be these days, I, for one, still believe that public relations and media people are essentially co-dependent and that both groups and the public benefit when they have a positive working relationship with one another.
This perspective is neither new nor novel. It's been a widespread belief among journalists and public relations practitioners alike for more than a hundred years. It dates back at least as far as Ivy Lee, a pioneering public relations practitioner, whose 1906 Declaration of Principles promised open and honest communication with the news media and the public. It's a perspective based on old-fashioned news values, journalism ethics, and traditional approaches to reporting.
The reporters, editors, and media practitioners who operated under this approach basically believed that the news should be accurate, fact-based, objective, free of reporters' and editors' opinions, and as balanced as possible. They also assumed that under ideal conditions, which didn't always prevail, stories included in the news would be chosen for their significance, relevance, and public impact, not merely their salaciousness or celebrity involvement.
While these were valid assumptions for a long, long time, they may no longer hold true for most of today's American news media .
Old-timers -- anyone born before the Vietnam War -- who remember reading newspapers or news magazines or watching television news while they were growing up or as young adults can simply reflect on what they saw then with what they see in the media today. Younger folks or old timers willing to do a little research can look in the periodical files of their local library or visit one of the many museums of radio and television that have sprung up around the country to see samples of pre-1980 news coverage and compare it to what they see today.
Personally, I have to admit that I'm one of those old-timers and that I used to love watching tv news and reading weekly news magazines. -- As a young journalism professor, I avidly watched all three of the evening network newcasts simultaneously and read all three of the major news magazines each week. -- More recently, I've done research to review and study 40, 50, 60, and 70-year old news stories from newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. And, quite frankly, I'm appalled at what passes for "news coverage" these days.
I was recently reminded of this in a somewhat surprizing way. I was reading Airframe, one of Michael Crichton's lesser-known novels that hasn't yet been made into a movie. It was first published in 1996 and doesn't quite measure up to Andromeda Strain or Jurassic Park, but it is an engaging and interesting story that includes some tense and believable confrontations between an aircraft manufacturer's corporate spokesperson and reporters who are covering her company's safety problems.
About a third of the way through the book, Casey Singleton (the protagonist of Airframe) emerges from a contentious interview with a reporter. Feeling exhausted and frustrated by the interview, she begins a self-reflection on American journalism:
"There was a time when reporters wanted information, their questions directed to an underlying event. They wanted an accurate picture of a situation, and to do that they had to make the effort to see things your way, to understand how you were thinking about it. They might not agree with you in the end, but it was a matter of pride that they could accurately state your view, before rejecting it. ...
"But now reporters came to the story with the lead fixed in their minds; they saw their job as proving what they already knew. They didn't want information so much as evidence of villainy. In this mode, they were openly skeptical of your point of view, since they assumed you were just being evasive. They proceeded from a presumption of universal guilt, in an atmosphere of muted hostility and suspicion. This new mode was intensely personal: they wanted to trip you up, to catch you in a small error, or in a foolish statement - or just a phrase that could be taken out of context and made to look silly or insensitive.
"Because the focus was so personal, the reporters asked continuously for personal speculations. Do you think an event will be damaging? Do you think the company will suffer? Such speculation had been irrelevant to the earlier generation of reporters, who focused on the underlying events. Modern journalism was intensely subjective - "interpretive" - and speculation was its lifeblood."
I couldn't have said that better myself and, obviously, I wouldn't have quoted it unless I thought it merited consideration. Crichton's view of the changes in journalism would have been worth reading and thinking about when it was written back in 1996, but it merits even more consideration now, in 2011, because the trends he highlighted have spread and intensified even more.
Regretably, most textbooks and references on media relations - including some of my earlier online articles - haven't kept up with these changes.
On the plus side, they ...
On the other hand, they still mistakenly ...
It would be far more realistic for thoughtful practitioners to re-think what they can expect from successful media relations, re-assess how they approach the process of media relations, and renew their efforts to establish realistic yet mutually beneficial relationships with reporters and editors.
|Links to readings on related concepts or other recent trends in public relations|
|Working with the media||Respond to the media||Can you spot PR in the news?|
|Calls to scrap public relations aren't new||Changing names of public relations||On the way to Integrated Marketing Communication?|
|Table of contents||Content curation:
A new role or merely a buzzword?
|Practicing Public Relations|