PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Media relations strategies may not be keeping pace
with changing practices in journalism.
© 2011; 2015 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations home 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. Evidence includes newspapers running routine sports stories on the front page, newscasts opening with who was kicked off Dancing with the Stars, and Nightline, once a bastion of serious in-depth coverage, devoting segments to celebrity chef "plate lists" and popular performer "play lists."

Despite this, media relations books continue to tell public relations practitioners to treat reporters as Walter Cronkite wannabes when the truth is that few of today's rising "newsroom stars" even know who Cronkite was or the ideals he represented. It's sad, but it may be time for public relations professionals to rethink how we work with reporters and editors.

Media relations - all the ways public relations professionals interact with the mass media on behalf of their employers/clients - has always been an integral part of public relations.

Everyone used to win when media relations emphasized cooperation.

In an earlier article about media relations I wrote "media relations should be a mutually beneficial two-way street" because I believed that public relations practitioners and journalists should work cooperatively to provide media consumers with the most accurate and reliable information possible. Sadly, I realize this is more idealistic than many people on both sides want to be these days, But, despite the rise of social media as a first-source for news and information, I still believe that public relations practitioners and traditional media people remain co-dependent and that both of these groups, as well as the general 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 century. 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, that the news stories they reported would be chosen for their significance, relevance, and public impact, not merely their salaciousness or celebrity involvement.

These were valid assumptions for a long time but, sadly, they no longer hold true for many of today's most popular American news media .

Driven by television, the media's approach to news has changed.

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.

I'm one of those old-timers, and I used to love watching TV news and reading weekly news magazines. -- As a young journalism professor, I avidly watched all three network newscasts each evening and read all three major news magazines each week. -- More recently, I've done research to review and study news stories from 40, 50, 60, and 70-year old newspapers, magazines, and broadcasting archives. And, quite frankly, I'm appalled at what passes for "news coverage" today compared to the high-quality reporting that used to be the norm.

Yes, it's true: we get more information more quickly than ever before, and it comes from more sources. But, more and faster aren't automatically better. Much of what we're getting now is just more crap. It hasn't been reviewed or confirmed by multiple sources and much of it is neither accurate nor reliable. Instead, it may be hazy first impressions, rumor, speculation, or pure opinion presented as fact.

I was reminded of this while recently reading Airframe, one of Michael Crichton's lesser-known novels, one that hasn't yet been made into a movie. It's not a new book. It was first published in 1996, and it doesn't quite measure up to Andromeda Strain, Jurassic Park, or some of his other better known works, but it is an engaging 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 corporate spokesperson) emerges from a contentious interview with a reporter feeling exhausted and frustrated. That's when she begins reflecting on the current state of 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 because the trends he highlighted then have spread farther and intensified even more.

The full ramifications aren't yet clear, but they are emerging.

Regrettably, most textbooks and references on media relations - including some of my earlier online articles - haven't fully 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 and mutually beneficial relationships with the kinds of people who may not be reporters or editors but who can help them reach the audiences that are important to their clients.

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13 May 2015