Journalism, as we know it, is going to hell in a handbasket.
It’s serious, of course. Journalism is the Fourth Estate, and we all depend on the freedom of the press and its willingness to tell important stories.
Communication as a profession, on the other hand, is doing just fine. The media logic is constantly evolving, and so are we. Obviously, there’s going to be some friction as communications and journalism sometimes overlap. Against such a backdrop, let me pose this rather naïve question:
Is there a way for journalism to let go of the idea that public relations is a problem and instead focus 100% on finding new solutions to their problems?
More “Flacks” than “Hacks”
According to journalist Mike Rosenberg, there are now five PR professionals on every news reporter in the US, an increase from fifteen years ago when there were two “flacks” on every “hack”.
The comparison is painting a picture of an army of “Pitchmen”, who, like corporate mercenaries, are attacking journalists from every direction.
And I agree that we PR people can get better at our jobs:
- We can make sure to write better press releases.
- We can get better at pitching journalists.
- We can step up our game as media trainers.
A reasonable assumption would be that an average PR professional spends less than 5% of his or her working hours focusing on securing editorial publicity. The rest of the time is spent on, well, you know, communications.
With a decreasing number of journalists combined with an increasing number of ways to communicate with inbound publics directly (yes, we do see other people), it makes sense for the PR industry to focus even less on traditional mass-media.
Addressing the Real Problem
I can understand resentment coming from journalists who are under the impression that professional communicators are responsible for making matters worse:
It’s true that communication mistakes are being made every day. However, it’s a stretch to claim that fewer mistakes would be made if all PR professionals decided to quit their jobs tomorrow.
And that’s just it. The real problem is too few journalists, not that there are too many companies prioritizing professional communication and marketing.
Almost all organizations today, public or private, must communicate professionally with both internal and external stakeholders. The ratio of professional PR professionals versus journalists could be twenty to one, just as long as there are enough journalists to report the news.
The Gatekeeper’s Prerogative
When I was studying public relations at Mid Sweden University, I interviewed the Editor-in-Chief for one Sweden’s largest evening newspapers — Thomas Mattsson at Expressen. For a thesis1, my study partner Markus Christiansson and I wanted to dive deeper into the relationship between journalists and PR professionals.
When asked about whether or not Mattson ever felt irritated about the sheer volume of useless press releases and bad PR pitches, he told us that he wasn’t bothered by this at all.
For Mattson, it was important that people pitched their stories, good or bad, to Expressen. He would be more worried, he said, if people, including PR professionals, didn’t pitch Expressen.
In fact, he welcomed more pitches. Because that’s what it means to be a gatekeeper.
Consider Hiring a PR Professional
Journalism is hurting financially, yes. And reporting the news, objectively and sometimes under extreme pressure, even under threat at times, really does merit a competitive salary. If it were up to me, they would get it.
But truth be told; journalism has never been the most lucrative of businesses. From its early beginnings, journalism has been dependent on advertising and subsidies.
It comes down to this:
As a journalist or news publisher, you either fight for reforms to have us all pay for public service journalism — or you innovate your product and distribution model. Both are viable strategies.
If nothing else, maybe also consider hiring a PR professional? Strategic communications might prove to be an essential business ingredient when it comes to reporting the news in the future.
What’s your take on the relationship between journalists and PR professionals? Please give me your perspective in the comment section.
- You can download our thesis here (in Swedish), winner of the PRECIS award 2003.