Public Relations

The two articles below were written and initially posted on the home page of this Web site at two different times. Now, with slight editing, they have been grouped togethter on this page so they can remain available while other articles fill the home page. Most of the topic-specific sidebars that appeared with them have been retained, although some time-specific notices were deleted.

-- Michael Turney, Ph.D., ABC     

Can you spot successful media relations efforts in the news?

One of the most popular and exciting aspects of public relations is "media relations," the broad process of working with the mass media to generate publicity for people, organizations, causes, or events. And, among public relations practitioners, it's almost axiomatic that effective media relations efforts will generate positive media coverage. If this is, indeed, true, how obvious are the results of these efforts? Can you readily spot news stories that were triggered by a public relations practitioner rather than being the unprompted and unsolicted reporting of the news staff?

If you haven't thought about this before, I'm hoping this article will prompt you to think about it now. And, even more than thinking about it, I hoping you'll be prompted to begin looking for evidence of media relations each day as you read, watch, and listen to the news media. There are at least two distinct benefits of this type of observation.

  1. You become more aware of just how much of the content of the major news media actually derives from public relations sources. -- Most studies report an average of about 50 percent.
  2. By paying careful attention to the stories about organizations similar to yours, you may pick up tips that will make your own efforts at getting media coverage more successful.

Admittedly, there's some guess work involved in this type of analysis, but it will probably be much easier than you expect once you get used to doing it. By carefully studying the news coverage you normally attend to any way, you should soon spot clues that suggest some of the stories were provided in their entirety as "news releases" or were otherwise pitched, planted or cultivated by a public relations person who wanted them to appear in the media.

Some clues are more obvious than others. Here are a few you can begin looking for in any news story in any medium.

Remember, these are only clues and should be thought of as such. Sometimes a story originated by the media without any public relations involvement can come out looking like those cited above. That doesn't matter. What's important is to remember that there is nothing wrong with any of these practices from a public relations standpoint. Favorable news coverage is one of the most desired goals of all public relations practitioners and their clients, and it's almost impossible to go wrong by getting positive media coverage.

On the other hand, there are hard-core, traditional journalists who might consider some of these practices "lazy" or less than ideal from a journalism perspective. They might even consider a reporter who uses them to be unethical or to have violated journalistic standards. So, to avoid offending such people and to be sure you don't cast helpful and friendly reporters in a bad light in their colleagues' eyes, it may be best to not talk about any of this in the presence of reporters, editors or other media people.

Can you recognize PR-inspired stories within a TV newscast?

As with newspaper stories, there is some guess work involved, but paying close attention to the news coverage you watch should help you spot clues indicating which stories may have been provided as "news releases" or were otherwise pitched, planted or cultivated by a public relations person. Watch carefully and see if you can spot:

Some PR-inspired stories will be obvious and easy to spot. Others will be more challenging. Here are some clues to look for. Some are the same as for newspaper or magazine stories while others will apply only to television news:

Tip-offs to PR-originated stories are not limited to the content of the story. Sometimes the best clue that a story originated as a PR piece is the fact that the story looks or sounds different than the other stories in the newscast. Sometimes a story looks or sounds different because it was provided by another news outlet -- a network, an affiliate station from another town, or a freelance reporter -- rather than being from a public relations practitioner, but obvious differences in how a story sounds or looks are good reasons to closely scrutinize it and consider its source.

Be particularly alert if any of the following audio and/or visual differences appear:

In many cases there'll be no reason to suspect a story resulted from public relations unless you happen to see the exact same story in newscasts on different stations belonging to different networks. Perhaps the entire story won't be identical but you'll recognize a particular piece of video footage. Both can be due to a VNR.

An example of the exact same story appearing in newscasts on multiple stations and networks that I remember involved an alternative to Botox that the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) was about to approve for the treatment of facial wrinkles. Within one week, I saw the exact story -- Same "reporter" speaking the same words; with the same visuals, the same sequence of camera shots, and the same character-generated graphics and ID's. -- on five different newscasts on three different local stations affiliated with different networks. A few phone calls to colleagues who worked at these stations quickly confirmed that it had been exactly what I suspected, a very well-produced and compelling video news release (VNR) had been distributed via a satellite feed to every TV station in the country that was willing to air it, and all three of the local stations independently decided to use it without realizing either of the others were doing the same thing.

That was an extreme and unusual clear example; that's why I remember it. In other cases, the same VNR may not be aired in its entirety by competing stations, but you might recognize bits and pieces of the same video footage showing up on different stations.

Up to a point, apparently similar footage can be just that -- similar and coincidental -- without coming from the same source. For instance, if there was major news about a corporation headquartered in your town, it wouldn't be unusual for every TV station in town to send someone to videotape the headquarters building and show it while the news anchor introduces the story. Such shots could easily appear identical even though each station shot its own. But, don't always expect this to be the case.

When you evaluate what appears to be identical footage on multiple stations, keep in mind that the more unusual the images are and the more complex the actions being shown are, the more likely it is that the footage was supplied by a public relations source rather than being a coincidence. And, when stories aired on different stations have more than one instance of apparently identical camera shots, even if they're not presented in the same order or with the same narration, it's likely that the stations started with the same VNR but that each of them chose to edit that VNR and re-arrange its footage so they could present the story in "their own special way."

The best example of this I ever saw was several years ago in Cincinnati and involved competing VNRs from Procter and Gamble and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Procter and Gamble was trying to get FDA approval for a then-new, fat-substitute and the CSPI was fighting every step of the process claiming that the new product had dangerous side effects and posed health risks for consumers. It became a real public relations battle, especially in Cincinnati, Procter and Gamble's hometown. There were frequent back-to-back press conferences in which spokespeople for each side tried to counter the arguments of the other side, and countless news releases and statements were issued. Both sides used VNRs, audio sound bites, and offered stock footage to anyone who would use it. Every one of Cincinnati's four TV stations with local newscasts used some of it, and so did the national networks.

Although I'm not aware of any stations or networks airing any of the VNRs in their entirety, there was one particularly critical and heated three-day period in which I logged certain key shots of laboratory testing from the CSPI VNR and of manufacturing, packaging and distribution from the Procter and Gamble VNR being shown on all four local stations and on network newscasts on three different networks.

Of course, near-identical video of a major news story isn't always suspicious or indicative of possible PR-origination. Sometimes it just reflects consistency in news judgment among different stations. For instance, if two stations have nearly identical footage of a local fire, it's probably not really the same footage and it's probably not due to public relations. What's more likely is that the story was just important enough for both of them cover and, when they arrived on the scene, the police and fire officials probably kept all photographers in the same place so they were all the same distance away from the fire and all of their shots were made from the same vantage point. Similarities in this type of story are understandable and not terribly suspicious.

On the other hand, if two stations run stories about the local job market and both show footage of the same person working on an assembly line, you should be very suspicious. The odds are that the video, if not the entire story, was a package provided by a public relations person. As a general rule, the more a story and its visuals skew toward the feature end of the spectrum rather than the hard news end, the more suspicious you should be.

Generally speaking, well-executed planted stories are harder to spot in television than they are in print media, so consider this a personal challenge. See if you can spot at least one planted or pre-produced television news story in the next two weeks.

Want to read more about it?

prbookMy online readings in public relations were written to supplement typical PR textbooks. Topics run the gamut from basic terms and concepts of public relations through the evolution of the profession to performing various everyday tasks. Click here for the complete table of contents.

These articles about working with the media may help you identify the results of public relations that appear in the news.

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pen and paper Turney's Tips are how-to-do-it guides for PR tasks such as writing news releases, formatting speeches, and developing strategic communication plans. Originally developed to help students complete class assignments, they're equally helpful as desktop reminders for working professionals. Click here for a directory and links to the pdf format tip files.

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