The changing dynamic between PR and journalism

What does the future hold for the communications industry when the ratio of PR practitioners to journalists are estimated at being 4-to-1?

New York Times investigative reporter David Barstow has been quoted as saying ‘the muscles of journalism are weakening and the muscles of public relations are bulking up - as if they were on steroids’. The power struggle between these sometime allies, sometime foes continues.

The debate on this topic was sparked by an article which appeared on the industry website Mumbrella last year. Mango PR head of publicity Tina Alldis penned an article for the site titled ‘How PRs will need to adapt to the Fairfax and News Limited upheavals.’ At the time there were major job cuts being announced by the two media companies that ultimately had a deep impact on the communications industry. Alldis explained what the job cuts would mean for public relations practitioners, concluding that it would help spread their content across more platforms nationally.

Alldis argued that ‘as we start to see the full effect of these restructures and the reduced number of journalists, I believe media will become increasingly reliant on newswire services to provide content.’ Alldis theorised that the widespread loss of jobs in journalism would mean PR practitioners would out number their colleagues at the newspapers, leaving them with no option but to publish their press releases.  She continued, ‘less journos will also mean that publications will be looking for content they can syndicate across the networks…all in all, it’s an exciting time to be in PR.’

In Australia, Mumbrella readers were outraged with the idea that job losses in journalism signified a time for rejoice in the public relations industry. The unofficial media regulator Media Watch, weighed in on the debate, also criticising Alldis for her insensitive comments. Media Watch pointed out a message MediaNet sent out to their client base. The memo read that journalists were under ‘content pressures,’ in that, ‘journalists have less and less time to seek out relevant material.’

While the article Alldis wrote on the demise of her colleagues in journalism can be classified as insensitive, it is not far from the truth. Communications advisor and commenter Peter Himler, attributes  the dip in the ratio between PR practitioners and journalists to the legacy media who are ‘struggling to retain the influence they historically’ enjoyed. This speaks of a journalism industry struggling in a market dominated by free online news, social media, the citizen journalist and the blogger.

American academics  Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols researched the same topic, declaring in their findings that ‘journalism is literally being rolled over by propaganda.’. They noted that the ratio of four PR practitioners to one journalist had come a long way since1980, when it was 1.2-to-1. McChesney and Nichols also uncovered that 86% of all news stories printed or aired in the US City of Baltimore in 2008 originated from “higher authorities,” such as public relations firms or corporate press releases.

Himler explains that the statistics do not necessarily give the full picture of the real practice occurring in the industry. He stresses that journalists from The New York Times, The Wall street Journal, Rueters and CNBC all frequently turn to those in the PR profession they’ve come to trust over the years for demonstrating they deliver timely and accurate information. Signs like this indicate that the relationship between journalist and PR professional will continue, in fact needs to continue.

Although, it would be overly simplistic to expect the dynamic between the media players to remain unchanged. Some argue that journalists desperately need their PR colleagues more than ever as they struggle to ‘feed hungry blogs, news outlets and social media sites.’ Himler notes journalists are being asked to produce more content, often in different mediums with fewer resources. This indicates a swing in the relationship to the advantage of PR professionals.

iSentia’s Newsboost personal digital newswire service offers companies the opportunity to ‘amplify your message’ by creating their own newsroom to disseminate information, media releases, images and videos to the media. This process is less of a push process to journalists and speaks of a more fluid collaboration which allows the media industry to seek out the information it requires. We may see a steady rise in the number of journalists actively pursuing media releases, videos and photo opportunities in the future.

Research shows that most journalists dismiss PR as “spin” and strenuously deny ever using it. University of Sydney communications professor and iSentia consultant Jim Macnamara believes the existence of this stereotype denies the truth that when practised ethically, public relations is simply another source of information. Ethics has recently come to the forefront of the media world following the Leveson enquiry into the English press. There are many trusted names in the Australian industry that are well known for their professional work ethic and as a result have build a loyal network of journalists who are keen to utilise their services as an information stream. 

Other commenters point to the emergence of new media which has flourished in the last decade. Last year, the then Australian Federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy explained that convergence, through the rise of new platforms and new voices, meant that the old system of media reporting could not be sustained. These new platforms herald a change in the dynamic of the relationship between PR and journalism.

Rory O’Connor believes that the technology has seen a power shift in the favour of the business world, where aided by the publicity machine, companies are able to create their own newsrooms online.  This process completely bypasses the need for journalists and the traditional media to send a message to the masses. O’Conner argues the process enables PR practitioners to speak “unfiltered” to the widest possible audience. Companies are capable of sending multiple messages across various platforms.  If the message being sent indeed holds some interest to the public, it will undoubtedly find its way into the pages of the newspaper dailies. Some would argue that this process is most organic and beneficial for the integrity of journalism and the practice of public relations. 

Public relations industry figure Mark Borkowski explains that previously journalists would revel in burning their publicity counterparts, but now ‘it's more of a collaborative process and under-resourced newspapers have become dependent on good relationships with PRs’.  It appears too simplistic to assume the balance of power has shifted dramatically in favour of public relations.  Instead we can observe there are a number of factors impacting on the dynamic between the two sides of the industry. We must keep in mind is that without public relations there is a lack of information, and without journalism there is a lack of means to disseminate this information.

by Sandra Youkhana
Newsdesk Executive, iSentia in Measurement: Impact, trends and developments.

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