Memo to grumpy editors: PR is not the enemy

In this guest post, Fleur Brown, CEO of public relations agency Launch Group, takes issue with a piece written in the Australian that argued that editors are grumpy with PR people for good reason.

Dan Kaufman’s rant in The Australian about the annoying habits of clumsy PR people is like watching someone rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic.

While Dan’s right to take issue with poor professional practice, there are more pressing reasons for journalists to be grumpy these days than fielding annoying phone calls from PRs. Newsmaking is changing at a fierce pace and in a few years time the role of the PR practitioner and the journalist will look completely different.

That makes complaints about current practices somewhat beside the point.

What’s really at stake here is not the emotional health of a grumpy editor, but the health of the news industry in general. Taking the predictable route of blaming the PR person for frustrations over the newsmaking process is a great way for both parties to go out of business.

Last time I checked, poor practice is alive and well on both sides of the fence. Slack attitudes, under-resourcing and a shortage of empathy seem to be the common issues on both sides.

For every PR person who fails to do their research, there’s a journalist who won’t bother to familiarise themselves with the background to a company before interviewing its CEO. For every poorly written media release, there’s an online story that’s littered with factual and grammatical errors. For every exaggerated headline in a media release, there’s a dangerously misleading headline or inaccurate lead paragraph. For every inept PR person who calls to speak to a journalist who left the company a year ago, there’s a journalist asking to interview a CEO who also left a year ago. You get my drift.

For the past two decades, I’ve worked, studied and taught on both sides of the journalism and PR fence. Much of my career as a PR person and business owner has been spent advocating for journalists.

Journalists may be surprised to find that many public relations professionals revere their profession. A lot of people go into PR because we love writing, news and storytelling.  And we’d sooner crawl under a rock than break faith with journalistic standards.

When I teach public relations, I teach students to respect the craft of journalism.

When I media train clients, I spend the first half of my sessions trying to build empathy for journalists and the increasing challenges in their world.

When journalism students sit in my PR classes, they spend the first few weeks regurgitating the dogmatic claims made about our industry (‘the dark side’) by their journalism teacher.  Objectivity clearly takes a holiday during those sessions.

To bring a little balance to the debate, consider these realities confronted by a PR person.

PRs often need to convince business people to talk to media in the first place – many interviews would never take place without some strong lobbying on the part of a PR person.

Most business execs are used to quick, bottom-line results and sales tactics. The world of news creation is foreign to them. We beseech clients to take a longer-term view of relationships with media, and to drop the company agenda and focus on the value of a good story.

Now multiply those factors by the power of ten in coming years as mass media loses power and self-published content and online marketing takes over the focus for corporations – threatening the livelihood of both practices or opening up new opportunities, whichever perspective you prefer.

Given the vital links between our two professions, wouldn’t we be better off working together to shape the future of news – rather than hurling grenades across the trenches, only to discover we’re fighting a common enemy: the unrelenting speed of change?

Fleur Brown is CEO of Launch Group


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