Can PR people and business journalists mend their broken relationship?

This is an excerpt from “The Future of Business Journalism: Why It Matters on Wall Street and Main Street” by Quinnipiac University School of Communications Dean Chris Rouse.

When Toronto Globe and Mail retail reporter Marina Strauss began reporting on strategy changes at restaurant chain Tim Hortons in October 2016, she requested interviews with the company’s chief executive officer and other management. The public relations staff told him so Interviews will be held at the end of November. After interviewing junior executives and some franchise owners, however, Strauss was denied further interviews by the company’s public relations staff, who were upset when he asked about the executive’s age and family. PR According to Duncan Hood, editor of the newspaper’s Report on Business magazine, people told the newspaper that they would not allow the newspaper to include personal information in the story.

Tim Hortons canceled all further interviews, including one with its head of store operations an hour before it was scheduled to begin and with Strauss in his car on the way to a meeting. Strauss and the Globe and Mail published their story about the company anyway.

This is an example of the broken relationship between business journalists and public relations people representing businesses that often hurts coverage because a lack of cooperation can often lead to incomplete information. While many PR professionals are good at it As business reporters and editors work with relationships and try to provide them with accurate and timely information about their companies, an increase in adversarial encounters has hurt what consumers, employees, and others know about important employers in their cities. cities. And it’s increasingly clear that public companies hire public relations staff because company news moves their stock prices, and they don’t want their prices to go down.

For private companies, hiring public relations representatives helps them get a higher price when sold to another company.

The battle between PR and business journalism has recently been won by the rise of public relations personnel, making it more common for reporters to cover the companies they represent. According to the US Census Bureau, there were 6.4 public relations professionals Every journalist in the United States in 2018, up from 1.9 public relations workers for every journalist twenty years ago. And between 2008 and 2017, U.S. newsrooms—newspapers, television stations, and radio stations—cut 26,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. labor

That disparity is likely to worsen — employment of public relations professionals is projected to grow 7 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than [4 percent] Average [growth] for all occupations,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Overall employment of reporters, correspondents, and broadcast news analysts is projected to decline 11 percent from 2019 to 2029,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Declining advertising revenue in radio, newspapers, and television for these occupations Employment growth will be negatively affected.

Pay in public relations is also better than journalism, leading many reporters and editors to switch careers. According to the Pew Research Center, for every $1 in salary made by a public relations professional, a journalist earns only 65 cents.

The result is that companies increasingly hide behind their public relations staff, ignore business reporters’ requests for information and interviews, or go on the offensive and try to change the focus of a story or issue statements to reporters that don’t answer the issues. Addressed the journalist’s question. Public relations professionals are now recommending that the companies they represent stop inviting or refusing to speak with business reporters at events like annual investor meetings. In some cases the public relations person lies or obfuscates the truth. And public relations strategies now go directly to consumers and others, using social media such as Twitter to deliver company messages. They argue that using social media removes the filter of journalism, where journalists will only use the part of the message that is important to them.

To be sure, this is a reporter’s prerogative. But companies benefit from media coverage in several ways. By limiting interaction with the business news media, public relations professionals, in the long run, hurt the companies that sign their paychecks. In the end, the truth about the company often comes out.

Take the case of KQED reporter Lily Jamali, who spent years covering Pacific Gas and Electric Co., a San Francisco-based company that struggled to shake off the perception that it was neglecting its customers after its equipment caused wildfires that burned forests and people’s homes. When the company offered some of its stock as part of the deal and its public relations people said it was a common strategy, Jamali reviewed past cases and said, “It became clear to me that this was not true.” He also noted that the company was “reluctant” to have its executives talk to reporters. “The only opportunity to interview CEOs is on the sidelines at regulatory or court hearings,” Jamali said, adding that those instances were limited during the COVID-19 pandemic, when hearings took place online.

Then there is the situation that many professional journalists face. Write a negative article about a business, and its public relations people may cut off access to executives or answer simple questions. In Virginia, the state’s largest utility, Dominion Virginia Power, declined to speak to reporters from The Virginia-Pilot. The newspaper said in a statement Has been the recipient of “false, biased and unfair news coverage and opinion pieces” from the newspaper.

Other public relations personnel will dangle exclusive interviews and stories in front of business reporters in order to spare the reporter another story that might paint their company in a negative light. When Fox Business News reporter Charles Gasparino was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, he received a Merrill Lynch memo telling brokers not to open accounts. Under $100,000, adding: “If you want to deal with poor people, you can get a good job at the United Way.” When Gasparino contacted the company for his story about the memo, the PR person responded by saying, “What can we do to get you to not write this story? You want an interview with our CEO?” Gasparino refused the request. But others can be misled.

It’s easy to understand why relationships are so strained. Many business journalists feel that public relations personnel act as a hindrance to their work. David Carr wrote in the New York Times: “Business reporters rely on background conversations with underlings, written statements that say nothing, and that increasingly rigid perennial: ‘no comment.’ To be vague.”

Carr was being polite with the word “slop”. Public relations practitioners are using lies and false and misleading information in their communications. In 2015, Shannon Bowen, a professor at the University of South Carolina who researches public relations ethics, wrote that a study of public relations workers found that many of them admitted to lying. media regularly. “And we wonder why journalists do not trust PR sources, value their ethics less than journalists, and look for other sources, more garbage, or for simple confirmation of facts?” she wrote.

Here’s an example of how this happens. Personal finance articles that appeared on CNBC’s website and columns written by Washington Post personal finance columnists quoted “experts” on student loan refinancing. But the person quoted was the creation of a public relations employee of a student loan refinancing company. “Experts” conducted the e-mail Journalists were interviewed but did not exist.

To be sure, business reporters often turn to public relations professionals for help with stories. But, from the examples here and many others that were not included, it is clear that the relationship has been seriously damaged and it has hurt how the business is portrayed. media.

Corporate communications personnel also need to do a better job of training executives to understand that they play an important role in today’s society. It’s harder than it sounds, as many executives have egos. “They need to represent and communicate, but they are usually neither trained nor chosen primarily because of these aspects,” Unger found. Zerfass and Markus Wiesenberg of the University of Leipzig and Dejan Verčič of the University of Ljubljana.

If you’re in public relations or believe that public relations staff provide a valuable service to companies, don’t worry. Journalists also make many mistakes when they cover business and economics: wooing CEOs and taking their point of view in place of more reporting, ignoring better sources of data and story ideas, prioritizing Wall Street glamor ahead of Main Street information needs.

But that topic will be the stuff of another essay—or a book like the one I wrote.

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