COMtalk

Faculty Focus

By Dustin Supa
Above photo by Kalman Zabarsky

A COM professor shares his research on the imperfect interactions between PR practitioners and reporters, and suggests small steps to improve them

Perhaps I should have been less naïve. When I set out to research the relationship between public relations professionals and journalists, I wanted to help the two parties come together to tell the story. Of course, I knew it would be a Herculean task. The field of media relations was contentious long before I began to practice, and for (historically) good reasons. I wanted to change that. I wanted public relations practitioners to tell their stories in ways that journalists would want to hear them, and I wanted journalists to actively seek out counsel from PR practitioners when they were writing their stories. I wanted to tear down the walls that had stood for so long between the fields.

Before I reveal what I’ve learned in this effort so far, let’s start with the ideal: Media relations can be defined as the systematic, planned, purposeful and mutually beneficial relationship between journalists in the mass media and public relations practitioners. Its goal is to establish trust, understanding and respect between the two groups. The media relations practitioner acts as a sort of pre-reporter for the journalist, identifying stories and giving journalists the information they need so that the media can better cover a given topic. Media relations practitioners provide a vital link between organizations and the journalists who cover those organizations. At least in theory.

In practice, journalists often view media relations practitioners as purveyors of trivial, non-newsworthy information, who too frequently insist on promotion of products and services, and whose main goal is to get free advertising space. For the past six years, a colleague and I have conducted research with public relations practitioners and journalists in three states, a total of more than 700 professionals, to determine the state of the relationship between those two fields, and to compare the results to those of similar studies done more than three decades ago. What’s disconcerting is that very little has changed in that relationship.

Using survey research, we have been analyzing the similarities and differences in responses between journalists and media relations professionals. It has provided much insight into the media relations practice, and ideally, the opportunity to improve the relationship between the fields. Our studies have found repeatedly that journalists across all geographic regions respond similarly. This is especially important as media relations practitioners are no longer limited by geography. Today, the speed and prevalence of an increasingly interconnected world allows for a journalist outside of a targeted market to have a profound impact on clients, consumers and even media within the targeted audience. Additionally, journalists are consistently playing an active role as agenda-setters within not only the traditional media, but social media as well. These two factors combined mean that the stakes are higher than ever for media relations practitioners to perform their jobs well. And unfortunately, in the eyes of many journalists, they aren’t.

What reporters want

Journalists consistently agree with the following: That public relations material is usually publicity disguised as news, that public relations professionals too often attach too much importance to trivial, uneventful happenings, and that the influx of public relations materials makes it harder for people to know what is news and what is not. Journalists also consistently disagree that: Public relations is necessary for the production of news, that public relations often does work for the media that would otherwise go undone, and that public relations, as a profession, is equal in status to journalism. Journalists also disagree that public relations professionals understand journalistic problems such as deadlines, attracting reader interest, and making the best use of space. Public relations practitioners, on the other hand, consistently answer the opposite of journalists. Obviously a disconnect exists.

While our studies don’t go into great length as to the formation of this contentious relationship between the professions, we posit that history and tradition, supported by continued poor practice by a segment of public relations professionals, has led to the divide. A history of publicists using questionable (at best) means to obtain coverage has permeated the two professions to the point of making it very difficult for the modern practitioner to receive the benefit of the doubt when establishing relationships with journalists. However, history alone cannot be the sole contributing factor. There is still a percentage of media relations practitioners out there who withhold information, who actively publicize non-newsworthy items, or who practice hitchhiker public relations—that is, write as many press releases as possible, put them on the wire, and hope someone will pick one up.

“What’s disconcerting is that little has changed in the relationship between the two professions.”

There is good news, though. Public relations practitioners and journalists often agree on the importance of what makes a particular piece of information newsworthy. Timeliness, significance, localness and culturally proximate news ranks high for both journalists and public relations practitioners. Therefore, it seems as though practitioners at least know what news the journalists are likely looking for.

So why aren’t they sending that information along? In part, the problem lies in client expectations. If a client or employer wants the practitioner to send out a release announcing the promotion of a midlevel manager at a branch office, it’s easier to send out the release than to sit down with the client and explain why it might not be newsworthy. Or the practitioner may not have the time to establish a frame for the story that would be of interest to journalists.

Establishing a connection

Since contact between public relations practitioners and journalists is often initiated by the practitioners, it is likely that feelings of distrust and skepticism are caused by the actions (or sometimes inactions) of the practitioner. In order to practice effective media relations, it is imperative that practitioners take it upon themselves to provide information that is valuable to journalists, to be open and honest with the media, and to manage the expectations of their clients. Furthermore, journalists expect to be targeted by the public relations practitioner—not simply included as one of many recipients of an emailed release, or perhaps even worse, told to see a release that went out via a wire service. Public relations practitioners need to adopt the strategy, both personally and with their clients, of practicing effective, targeted media relations that will result in meaningful media placements. Journalists should not be made to feel as though they are a means to an end. The successful practitioner uses an audience-centered approach, and one of those audiences must be the media. By establishing a connection and providing quality, useful information, there is an opportunity to stand out as a responsible and qualified partner in the dissemination of information.

While these simple fixes may not be enough to reach my goal of tearing down the walls between the professions, with a little patience (and a little more research) perhaps one day we’ll get there.

Want to learn more data on perceptions within media relations? Read the full research article by Dustin Supa and Radford University’s Lynn Zoch, from which this Faculty Focus was adapted. And to learn about more of the research being done by COM faculty, visit http://www.bu.edu/com/research/

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