Dear Journalist,

Don't blame PR when journalism is falling short.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

Dear journalist,

Traditional journalism is going to hell in a handbasket.

The fall of journalism is a serious matter, of course. Journalism is the Fourth Estate, and we all depend on the freedom of the press and its willingness to tell meaningful stories.

PR professionals, on the other hand, are doing better. The media logic is evolving, and so are we. Change is difficult, but society needs more professional communication, not less.

So, dear journalist, let me pose this somewhat naïve question:

Is there a way for journalism to let go of the idea that PR is the problem and explore more constructive solutions?

Let’s dive right into it:

More “Flacks” than “Hacks”

According to journalist Mike Rosenberg, there are five PR professionals for every news reporter in the US. Fifteen years ago, we had two “flacks” on every “hack”. Rosenberg portrays an army of “Pitchmen”, sinister corporate mercenaries, attacking journalists from every direction.

And I agree that we, the PR professionals, should improve and get better at media relations in general:

However, a reasonable assumption would be that an average PR professional spends less than 5% of their working hours working towards journalists.

The rest of the time is spent on, well, communications. Communications with various stakeholders, to be more precise.

Stakeholders in Public Relations

In PR, we often discuss stakeholders. And most PR specialisations are grouped based on which stakeholders they’re responsible for managing. 1The stakeholder model is far from perfect. There are plenty of overlaps, especially when it comes to media relations. Also, the corporate communications function is often regarded as an umbrella … Continue reading

A few examples:

  • External and internal publics, business journalists, regulatory institutions, partners, suppliers, vendors etc. (Corporate Communications)
  • Shareholders, financial markets, market analysts, financial institutions, trade journalists etc. (Investor Relations)
  • Journalists, editors, influencers etc. (Media Relations)
  • Inbound web traffic, brand communities, subscribers, fans, followers, influencers, social networks etc. (Digital PR)
  • Voters, political journalists, political analysts, columnists, interest groups etc. (Public Affairs)
  • Politicians, legislators, government officials, committees influencers etc. (Lobbying)
  • Coworkers, potential recruits etc. (Internal Communications)
  • Crisis victims, worried publics, the general public, coworkers, journalists, influencers, customers, shareholders etc. (Crisis Communications)
  • Potential customers, existing customers, trade journalists, members, affiliates etc. (Marketing Communications)
  • Trade journalists, trade organisations, niche influencers etc. (Industry PR)

A common misconception is that the PR function only deals with journalists, editors, and influencers (Media Relations) within the scope of attracting new customers (Marketing PR). But such work represents only a small percentage of all the stakeholder relationships PR professionals must manage daily.

Read also: How To Classify Stakeholders in Public Relations

Media relations is only one focus area of several. The typical PR generalist will devote more time to corporate, internal, and inbound communications.

With a decreasing number of journalists combined with an increasing number of ways to communicate with the inbound publics directly (yes, we do see other people), it makes sense for the PR industry to focus even less on traditional mass media.

Not more.

It’s a Privilege, Not a Curse

In 2000-2003, when I was studying public relations at Mid Sweden University, I interviewed the Editor-in-Chief for one of Sweden’s largest evening newspapers — Thomas Mattsson, Expressen.

For our thesis, my study partner Markus Christiansson and I wanted to dive deeper into the relationship between journalists and PR professionals.

When asked whether Mattson ever felt irritated about the sheer volume of useless press releases and lousy PR pitches, he told us that he wasn’t bothered by this.

For Mattson, people needed to pitch their stories, good or bad, to Expressen. He said he would be more worried if people, including PR professionals, didn’t pitch Expressen.

The editor-in-chief Thomas Mattsson welcomed PR pitches because being a gatekeeper is an essential privilege of being a journalist.

The Elephant in the Newsroom

I can understand resentment coming from journalists who are under the impression that professional communicators are responsible for making matters worse:

Corporate communicators make mistakes every day. However, it’s a stretch to claim fewer mistakes would be made if all PR professionals decided to quit their jobs tomorrow.

The real problem is that there are too few journalists, and not that more organisations prioritise better communication.

Almost all organisations 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 enough journalists to report the news.

Dear journalist, perhaps news publishers should even consider hiring more PR professionals.

Thank you for reading this article. Please consider supporting my work by sharing it with other PR- and communication professionals. For questions or PR support, contact me via [email protected].

Bonus Resource: The Difference Between Journalism and PR

Journalism and Public Relations

PR professionals and journalists share many practical skill sets. Still, public relations and journalism are fundamentally different:

Journalism is the effort to objectively report the news on behalf of the public interest.

A fundamental critique against journalism is that objectivity is unrealistic and the public interest heterogeneous.

Public Relations is the effort to subjectively advocate positions on behalf of special interests.

A fundamental critique against public relations is that advocacy of special interests is dishonest manipulation.

But even if both journalism and PR fail to live up to their ideal states at all times, both practices play vital roles in upholding a balanced and stable democracy.

Read also: Journalism vs PR

1 The stakeholder model is far from perfect. There are plenty of overlaps, especially when it comes to media relations. Also, the corporate communications function is often regarded as an umbrella category for the other disciplines.
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.


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