Jul 20, 2011

Public Relations Plays a Vital Role in the News Cycle

Popular New York Times columnist David Pogue is well known for actively engaging with his cohorts in public relations, maintaining an active dialogue with PR pros, and speaking at industry events, sharing his perspective on creating effective pitches and working effectively with journalists.   However, his session titled “Pitch Me, Baby” at Ragan Communications’ Media Relations Summit, a paid event, didn’t sit well with the Times’ staff, and they moved to prohibit Pogue participating in that session, or similar events in the future.

Public editor Arthur S. Brisbane discussed the decision earlier this month, noting: “…Such appearances are explicitly prohibited by The Time’s ethics policy. Excerpts of the relevant portions: Staff members may not advise individuals or organizations how to deal successfully with the news media (though they may of course explain the paper’s normal workings and steer outsiders to the appropriate Times person)….They should not take part in public relations workshops that charge admission or imply privileged access to Times people….”  Pogue agreed not appear at anymore PR events.

However, some of the characterizations and allusions in Brisbane’s editorial left a bad taste in many PR professional’s mouths. Pogue’s public admission of his reliance on publicists caused some discomfort in the Grey Lady’s upper echelons.

“Times readers deserve to be assured that journalists don’t get too cozy with the P.R. professionals who strive to influence coverage,” wrote Brisbane. “A virtual army of publicists, media specialists and others stands ready every day to infiltrate the news with stories that help their employers.”

Not surprisingly, Brisbane’s comments elicited enough feedback from the public relations quarter that he was compelled earlier this week to muse whether or not PR is a bane or boon to journalists, and put several questions forth, asking readers how they felt about the Times’ reliance on PR for stories, and querying the PR community about the benefits public relations delivers to Times staff.

PR Newswire sits squarely between professional media and public relations practitioners, and media relations has always been important to us.  Our editors help clients polish their press releases, catching mistakes, authenticating sources, adding attribution when needed and refusing copy that doesn’t meet standards.  Our audience development and research teams work with news outlets, web portals, journalists, bloggers and freelancers worldwide to ensure they can find and access the content they need, in the manner most convenient for them. Along the way, we get a lot of feedback about public relations and press releases.   So I put one of Brisbane’s questions — What are the benefits that publicists and P.R. professionals can provide to The Times? Are there any problems? – to my colleagues here at PR Newswire.

Former television journalists and long-time media relations manager Brett Simon agreed with Pogue’s view that a smart PR person can save a journalist valuable time, noting a savvy publicist can help a reporter find the right people to talk to in an organization as they’re fleshing out a story.

“Publicists can lay a vital role in securing the right person for journalists’ stories and they can do so with expediency.  PR folks at corporations and other organizations are keenly aware of who does what, their nature of expertise, access to their contact information and can quickly make the person available,” she told me. The benefit to the journalist is clear, as well, she noted, “This saves the reporter valuable time by not having to call around to find the appropriate person.   PR people do all the leg work and the journalist can get the credit.”

Victoria Harres, PR Newswire’s director of audience development, noted the role public relations plays in surfacing stories, and reminded us that non-profits and NGOs also make use of PR.

“Public relations people play an important role in bringing things to the attention of journalists. There are not enough journalists in the world to make sure that every story worth telling is told,” she said. “A good PR person will understand individual journalists’ beats and provide relevant information that help journalists do their jobs without spending significant amounts of time finding out when events are happening, when products are launching, or if there is a coordinated effort to send money and aid to some part of the world where tragedy has struck. Let’s not forget non-profits also use PR professionals to make sure their stories are told.”

Christine Cube, another former journalist and another of our media relations managers, commented on the legwork public relations pros do for journalists.

“PR adds a great deal to the news cycle. Without it, there are a lot of gray areas. And whether journalists want to admit it or not, PR helps clear up that gray. It provides background info, story ideas, and produces the principles who can speak to a specific subject or matter,” she said.

Maria Perez, director of news operations for ProfNet, discussed the role public relations plays in facilitating communications between a journalist and an organization, and their role in finding and connecting journalists on deadline with relevant experts.

“Not all subject matter experts are experts at dealing with the media,” she noted. “PR professionals are. Working through a PR professional can help facilitate the process and improve communication. Furthermore, because PR professionals often represent several clients, working with them can help journalists choose from a larger pool of experts, ensuring that a variety of voices are heard. Finally, PR professionals often know what’s going on in their client’s industry, and can add facets to the story that would otherwise be overlooked.”

Tom Hynes, manager of blogger relations for PR Newswire (and yes, another former journalist on our staff) commented upon the negative perception many have for public relations, and the fact that minds change quickly when a fast-breaking story or crisis situation unfolds.

“I feel like there’s probably a lot of unjust scorn or derision aimed at PR professionals,” he said. “For this discussion, I’ll liken that to the chiropractic practice. You may think it’s a quack science — until you throw your back out. You may think PR professionals are unnecessary — until you have a crisis situation that needs deft and professional communicating.”

Harres and Perez both offered comment on the responsibilities of the professional journalists in this discussion.

“One sentence in Brisbane’s post that stood out for me is that he asks about “how the PR industry influences The Times,” Perez noted. “I would like to think the PR industry does *not* influence journalists, but provides journalists with the information necessary regarding their client. If a journalist can be “influenced” by a PR person, that’s a problem.”

Harres also noted the roles played by both sides, and the responsibility of the professional journalist in the development of a story.

“A good PR professional tells a story from a particular perspective. A good journalist will look at all sides and angles of a story and tell it in an unbiased fashion,” Harres commented. “The public relations perspective should be considered in this process. It is a very valid element in putting together a clear picture.”

Simon summed it up well. “PR folks are a journalist’s friend. Yes, they may sometimes annoy reporters with useless pitches but when a New York Times reporter needs them for a story, you can bet that publicist is going to go beyond the call of duty to help that journalist out.  In today’s deadline driven news cycle, with journalists providing content across multiple platforms, a PR person can be a tremendous source of people/experts and information.”

Author Sarah Skerik is PR Newswire’s vice president of social media.

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