Jake Stevenson

Senior Seminar

PR and the Media: Friends or Foes?

Journalists were given special rights under the constitution to act as a government watchdog. Though journalists still have those rights today, many appear to be taking the easy route. Instead of cracking and reporting their own stories, far too many media outlets now rely on outside private sources to fill their pages and newscasts. In an age where the quick fix is perceived as the best solution, our news is no different. Now more than ever producers and editors are often forced to resort to press releases in order to fill time/space, (an unfortunate reality). Perceived as the bad-guy at times by media professionals, public relations practitioners may supply the majority of the story ideas on any given night. It’s a controversial, yet mutually symbiotic relationship that exists between public relations and the media. The PR field undoubtedly affects the news we watch read and listen to. It’s a force that has been growing rapidly since the 1980’s and will continue to do so. Day by day media organizations become more conglomerated; in fact the only large independent newspaper in this state is the Great Falls Tribune, the Lee Newspapers claim the bulk. TV and Radio stations are no different. To make matters worse we see the

same sensationalized stories appear in their newscasts and papers. The culprit behind this one might ask? One answer is companies such as AP, PA, and Reuters. Each week these organizations produce thousands of stories, many of which were written or pitched by one of the hundreds of free-lance or pr pros. Based on the sheer volume as well as shrinking budgets and staff, local stations are forced to rely on the news giants for stories. It seems the news industry has finally caught up with other industries in becoming a real “business”. Investors have discovered the fiscal opportunities in news, and have capitalized on the idea by purchasing as many stations/papers as the eye can see. The competition has become greater effectively changing the way in which ratings affect the stations bottom line. This in part has created the 24-hour news cycle. Media outlets constantly seek stories to air/publish, even if that means it’s neither newsy nor interesting. The press release is a public relations practitioner’s best friend. With this page or two pitch a well-versed pr pro can sculpt a news story out of next to nothing; any fund raiser or celebration will do. The businesses that employ these practitioners also subscribe to services like the AP, and in turn can feed the source directly or send it any number of press contacts across the state. On a slow news day, or for some businesses everyday, the press release may be the only way they’re going to fill that half hour spot. One of the biggest problems with press releases from the AP for instance, is journalists have no way of knowing whether or not it is indeed PR. This debate has heated up since the continued popularization of ANR (audio news releases) and VNR (video news releases). Many times these clips contain pre edited interviews or packages produced on

the businesses dime. Regularly during TV news programming you’ll see what appears to be a package about health issues, which in essence is more of a commercial. Loaded with logos and staged scenes, companies hire journalists specifically to create these stories and pass them off as news. Another common practice amongst PR teams known as “selling in” is hiring a free-lance journalist to write or produce a story related to your company. The journalist will then sell the story to either an AP or sometimes directly to the stations and receive pay from both parties, a sweet but very unethical deal. Recently news organizations have shunned the use of ANR and VNRs, and the use is on the decline. PR firms need journalists to find write or produce their stories, as a journalist needs the press releases to fill space. The PR side of the relationship seems to test the boundaries just a little bit more. A group called the TJFR Group has a database containing information on most journalists in the country. This database has bios, including personal interests, or likes/dislikes of a specific journalist. With this database the PR firms can keep an extra tab on journalists. This allows PR practitioners to place stories into the hands of reporters/producers/editors/news directors who they know would pursue the beat based on information contained in the personal bio. It is certain that PR has the ability and resources to shape the news we hear, sometimes in an entirely unethical manner. It is a common practice for PR firms to create campaigns or press releases to diminish undermine or falsify a story that sheds negative light on their company. Most of the time press releases will be issued calling the controversy in question, one that is out of date, untrue, or not important. Another common practice is for a PR pro to come up with a new

better story idea to throw the way of a journalist who stumbles upon something juicy. The relationship between PR and the media can be a help or hindrance for both parties; it can also be a career crossover. It is very common for journalism majors to pursue PR after college, and though it happens less often, PR practitioners may become journalists. Though some journalists feel they’d be giving up their dreams and joining the “dark side”, it’s a very economical move. Most starting salaries in PR range from 40-60 thousand dollars, starting out in journalism you’re lucky if you’re making 20 a year. Both professions share many of the same skills; Inter-Personal skills (i.e. Building relationships, interviewing), writing skills, as well as speaking ability. It is in part due to the similarities of the two fields that such a strong relationship and need for one another has formed over the past 30 years. Without PR firms journalists would not be able to report on what can be at times groundbreaking stories, but to get access those stories they also have to produce some fluff once in a while. Without journalists PR firms would not exist. Companies would further invest into their marketing and research departments, and PR would not be the huge force in the marketplace it is today. There are quite a few ethical questions pertaining to the relationship between journalists and the PR world, one of which is where do we draw the line? There is no doubt that a controversial bond has been made causing both sides to rely heavily upon one another. This relationship continues to grow; it’ll be interesting to what happens.

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