7 Ways PR People Can Support Journalism

There are now five PR people for every working journalist. This may seem like a good thing for the PR business as companies increasingly tell their stories through social media and branded content. But as stark evidence that sources of objective news are shrinking, it’s not a healthy sign for either industry.

What may be more alarming are indications that journalism is under siege. On any given day the president is deriding “fake news” reports, calling CNN “dishonest,” or attacking the “failing” @nytimes. And for their part, media do sometimes fail; just look at ABC’s recent suspension of Brian Ross over inaccuracies in a sensitive political story.

But the news about news isn’t all bad. Although a partisan divide sharpens how we view the press, overall trust in journalism has actually increased in the past year, according to the just-released Poynter Institute study. A large majority of respondents (69 percent) believe that the media “tend to favor one side,” yet the same percentage believe that news organizations “keep political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done.”

Many blame Mr. Trump for the loss of confidence in the MSM, but the erosion probably started decades ago, with the rise of conservative radio. As right-of-center radio host Charlie Sykes puts it, “we’ve done such a good job of discrediting (the mainstream media), that there’s almost no place to go to be able to fact check.” But what’s interesting is how the mainstream press has weathered the attacks against it. Attacks by the president and his allies have sparked a new appreciation for the media by those who used to take it for granted, and that’s a good thing.

So, what’s a responsible PR person – or informed citizen – to do? The recent “credibility crisis” in the mainstream press, as well as various reactions to media criticism, offer some suggestions.

Step up support for “real” news outlets

Time to up those subscriptions, PR pros. Beyond our own consumption, now is a great time to support the types of journalism that are under the most pressure — local news reporting and investigative journalism. If you have enough subscriptions, donate. Jay Rosen tweeted this NewsMatch list of news and journalism organizations for last week’s #givingTuesday; these groups probably deserve as much consideration as your favorite charity, and all donations through December 31 will be matched.

Think twice about ad-blocking

I know, digital ads can be annoying and irrelevant. But they’re getting better, and they are what pays for journalism. Do we really want to have it both ways when we know the price of a weakened news media industry?

Don’t tweet or post without reading it

Headlines can be deceiving. Before we share that infuriating tweet about Congress or the latest “tips” post on content marketing, maybe give it a look, because it may just be a sign-up page for someone’s seminar, or paywalled, or even a hoax. It’s not always what we think.

Be scrupulous about attribution

It’s easy to get sloppy, or worse, in the rush to meet deadlines and client expectations. But no one can afford to be lazy or hasty about attributing quotes properly or noting proper sources. And journalist Anna Clark has the right idea when she advises bloggers and social sharers to attribute to the original source, not a secondary story that aggregates or summarizes. Yes, it may take an extra step to find the link, but it’s worth it. Aggregated news is not original journalism.

Get out of your media bubble

This is a tough one. But I agree with Josh Stearns of The Democracy Fund when he advises a “diverse media diet with a good mix of indie and alternative news, local, national and international coverage, niche and countervailing points of view.” The news-source tunnel vision that we’ve adopted is not contributing to better journalism.

Shut down phony stories

Fake stories and rumors can bubble up from a misperception or mistake that was never corrected, leading to further distortion. It’s incumbent upon PR professionals to be scrupulous about the facts of any story we promote or share, and to hold both clients and journalists accountable when it comes to storytelling and fact-checking, even down to the tiniest details.

Follow the money

That study that shows ice cream enhances mental performance – who funded it? As PR pros, many of us have deep experience promoting health news, often funded by large companies, and usually supporting the organization’s brand or bottom line. There’s nothing wrong with this. But we do need to be both scrupulous with the facts and transparent about the funding and sourcing. All news consumers should note who’s offering the information, who benefits, and most of all, who’s paying.

Boston Marathon Tragedy Brings Out The Best, And Worst, In Journalism


Covering a breaking news story may be the toughest media job there is. But as Jay Rosen points out, it’s also an opportunity for highly trained, seasoned journos to do what they should do best – report the facts and capture the experience of those present. Sadly, many fail the test.

The Boston Marathon bombing was one such example. I’m sure there were examples of fine reporting yesterday;  I just didn’t see them. I did see the 10-minute press conference with Mass General’s trauma surgeon Peter Fagenholz. It was nearly unwatchable, and not just because of the tragic circumstances.

The media scrum outside the hospital was like an aggressive White House press gaggle, with reporters shouting questions seemingly without any forethought. To his credit, Dr. Fagenholz handled it like a champ, but even his calm refusal to stray from the facts didn’t alter the mood, which one media observer called “bloodlust.” To me, it was more like amateur hour.

The questions ranged from redundant and silly to downright embarrassing. One reporter asked Fagenholz if the eight patients classified as critical cases “would be okay,” forcing the good doctor to explain the meaning of the word “critical.” He also had to respond drily that, no, he was not trained by the Israeli army, in answer to a shouted media question that was faintly tinged with hysteria.

Dr. Fagenholz was respectful throughout the press onslaught but had a trace of scorn in his voice when, after being asked for the fourth time if all victims had been identified and responding that he did not know, he said he had interrupted his surgeries to “come out and talk to you” and would have to get back to work. (Dr. F. is my new hero.)

Earlier, I caught a local New York reporter taping a standup near Copley. While cautioning that “no one wants to compare the bombing with 9/11,” he reminded us darkly that “in fact, one of the American Airlines flights that crashed into the towers started in Boston.” Huh?

As with the tragedy in Newtown, many published facts were simply not true, and some were dangerously misleading. Boston authorities never asked cell phone carriers to shut down service, as was widely reported.

Most egregiously, The New York Post headline blaring, “12 Dead, At Least 50 Injured” wasn’t retracted even hours after it ran. Finally, the headline was changed, but the inaccurate death toll was still in the story late Monday night.

It’s bad enough that, just hours after the tragedy, conspiracy crackpots were trying to claim it was a “false flag” attack, or government plot. But “real” journalists should be able to cover even the most challenging breaking news story with greater professionalism. Is it getting worse, or am I just getting old?

Do Journalists Really Make The Best PR People?

The recent Burson Marsteller “whispergate” mess got me thinking about the long-lived, symbiotic relationship between people who work in PR and those who make their living in journalism. The two PR pros who tried to seed negative stories about Google on behalf of a not-so-secret client (Facebook) were former reporters who had only recently moved to the dark side. Some expressed surprise that ex-journos weren’t more skillful in their media relations, while others chalked it up to different sensibilities. But our industry is growing, and a good portion of our swelling numbers comes from an influx of former media types.

So, do journalists really make the best PR people?

Certainly, someone with deep experience spotting news, shaping a story, and writing against often-hellish deadlines has valuable skills that are in hot demand for publicity generation. And ex-journos impress clients, too. In my large-agency career, some were invited to the big pitch in order to opine on story potential, drop names, and wow the prospect, never to be heard from again. Others were installed in editorial spots where they could wield a blue pencil but otherwise stay out of the fray.

I’ve seen some adjust with ease, while others, even when extremely talented, struggle with the transition, especially to an agency. Here’s what you need to think about if you’re considering a switch – or looking to hire an ex-reporter for an account or media relations spot.

Are you ready to be the seller instead of the buyer? Unless you’ve come up as a freelancer who needs to win assignments in order to eat, it can be hard to pitch stories to unresponsive reporters and editors. And it’s even harder if some of your buyers are ex-colleagues.

Do you speak marketing? One of the tougher transitions might be from the news desk to marketing PR, which hard-bitten reporters often disdain as fluff. Consider a crash course in marketing, but if you can’t see yourself packaging the benefits of a new cereal or pitching, say, Mr. Bubble’s 50th birthday bash, then look at financial or professional services PR instead.

Can you toe the corporate line? Even at so-called creative boutiques, the clients – and the general workstyle – may be more structured and corporate than life at a daily news desk.

Can you practice diplomacy? I once had to reassign a journalist buddy after an uncensored – and highly insulting – response to a question from a C-level client.  Contrary to the stereotype of the PR pro as a toadying yes-person, we value honest counsel, and so do our clients.  But, the feedback has to be delivered in a constructive way, with corporate objectives and sensitivities kept in mind.

Can you crunch hours? Tracking hours may sound like a silly administrative detail, but, on the agency side, successful time management, accountability, and billability can be the difference between success and failure.

Do you see the bigger picture? Even if an ex-journo starts in media relations, the typical growth path is through account and staff management. That requires a broader backgrounding in the many facets of PR that go beyond publicity, from brand strategy to program development. It also calls for a real talent for managing people – including clients and staff.

Can you serve many masters? Corporate life is very different from a newsroom, and a particular challenge of agency work is that we serve so many constituents. Those on the firing line answer to the media they’re pitching, a direct manager or supervisor, a client, and, usually, the client’s bosses. There can be new communications protocols, bureaucracy, surprising expectations, and tremendous pressure for results.

In the ideal world, every PR person would spend a year as a journalist. And if every reporter spent just six months pitching at a PR firm, imagine what we could accomplish together.

How Bin Laden Renewed My Faith In "Old" Media

It was after 11:00 p.m. eastern time when a tweet caught my eye, then another. Within moments, I learned that Bin Laden was dead, and that President Obama was preparing to speak about it on all major networks. This without leaving my Twitter app or clicking on a single link.

The speed with which the news ricocheted around the Web was impressive. Facts, opinion, sentiment, jokes, and quotes about the raid were available within minutes. Most fascinating to me were @BrianStelter‘s updates about the furious re-editing of The New York Times’ front page at, quite literally, the 11th hour. It was the big one, and it burst in at the end of a lazy weekend as a tour de force for Obama, a boost for the country, and – most notably for communications pros – a direct hit for Twitter.

And yet, the first thing I and many others did upon learning the news was turn on the TV to await the President’s remarks, while surfing for analysis about what it all means. What’s the reaction of the Muslim world? Has Obama just won reelection? Should I re-book my flight for next week?

My appreciation of the “old” media’s handling of the unfolding Bin Laden story may have been heightened by the tragic deaths of two journalists in Libya recently. And it was reinforced by the other top headline on my feed, which was Lara Logan’s account of her horrifying sexual assault in Egypt.

Yet, it’s not about the danger, even if it should be. It’s about the role of “real” journalism in our culture. Yes, it’s a milestone that one of the biggest stories since 9/11 itself broke on Twitter. And lingering on Twitter and trading updates until well past midnight gave me that addictive sense of community and conversation that makes it so irresistible.

But, as with most major breaking news, the tweets left me craving the broader society of the mass media audience. This might be probably generational on my part. But Romanesko reports that New York Times page views were up a blistering 86 percent overnight. So, I’m not alone in the need for real-time insights into how the news could affect my life, New York City, our national standing, and the broader political landscape.

So, I’m grateful for the raid for all the usual reasons, and even for its validation of social media. But, it also renewed my faith in the “traditional” press, who rose to the challenge like champs. I believe our enormously symbolic victory over an iconic terrorist can also be seen as an equally big win for “real” journalism as we (thankfully) still know it today. And perhaps that’s yet another “mission accomplished.”

When Social Media Goes Too Far

The social web can be a wonderful thing. But what happens when social content goes too far as a substitute for actual journalism? In an age when “everyone is the media,” the credibility bar drops fairly low, revealing biases, errors, and rumors that pass as fact. I’m grateful for the traditional press, battered, but unbowed, when it comes to sorting out what’s really happening.

Except when it isn’t. Occasionally the mainstream media is suckered by what they read on blogs and social media platforms. David Carr’s New York Times story on the TSA furor has me thinking about how things go haywire when social and traditional media, rather than complementing one another, join to fan a brushfire. It’s the worst of both worlds.

Carr recaps how the reaction to new TSA security procedures, including high-tech scans and thorough body pat-downs, blew up on Twitter, then mushroomed into a traditional news story, and spawned an opt-out movement…all turning out to be much ado about very little. The TSA struggled to respond to the furor. But, when the mainstream outlets went out to report the story of the airport protests, apparently there wasn’t one.

It reminded me of a larger news story. Remember the Iranian Twitter revolution that never happened? And, at the other end of the spectrum, a favorite recent blog topic, about the outcry around Gap’s new logo? The social media revolt was such that newspapers and other jumped on the story, and Gap was forced to backpedal and return to its original iconic look. Yet, afterwards, a customer survey showed that only 17 percent of Gap customers were even aware of the initial logo change. It was branding and social media insiders, and PR people like me, whose comments multiplied exponentially on the social web.

These examples raise “echo chamber” accusations about the social web and its so-called influencers. Who’s really out there? Is it twelve people with mirrors? Is what seems like digital “grassroots” just a a few plants treated with media miracle-gro?

Maybe it’s no surprise that those who tweet the loudest are heard. After all, social content sharers are prey to all the pitfalls of traditional press – wanting to be first with interesting items, needing news during a slow time (like a holiday week), wanting to stoke reader interest, retweets, and discussion.

To be fair, many readers of Carr’s TSA story hotly dispute his premise – that, in fact, there were few protests and little of note at major airports over Thanksgiving week. That’s a good thing. When controversy rages online, it’s a reminder of the diversity of opinion on the web, and an antidote to groupthink.

When we bother to look for it, that is. Maybe it’s a reminder for us to break out of our digital cliques and to try harder to avoid falling into a social/digital news feed of recycled ideas and commentary about commentary. The next post will explore ways to do that. Until then, enjoy this video about “old” media’s newfound fascination with it.

Shirley Sherrod And The Death Of Context

It’s practically a given that privacy is dead. Just ask Mel Gibson. His creepy rantings (and pantings), as recorded by his girlfriend, have probably ended his career. In a different way, General Stanley McChrystal was also brought down by a breach in the traditional discretion granted to subjects of his ilk, greatly amplified by digital media. All it took was a couple of careless remarks made by aides when they mistakenly counted on a wall of privacy. The general was no match for the social web.

Just last month, Helen Thomas was caught on tape blasting Israel and advising that Jews should “go back to Germany,” precipitating a sad end to a long career. Of course she knew she was being recorded, but she somehow never thought her remarks would be on YouTube within a day.

I wouldn’t put those three in the same category, and in each case, the consequences were probably deserved. But social media helped hasten a harsh denouement and ensure that no second chances were granted. When stories are retweeted and shared within minutes, there’s no room to deny, delay, or clarify. You can die by your own hand within hours.

There’s another reputation that was recently shredded, that of USDA officer Shirley Sherrod. Social media was at work here, too. Sherrod was unfairly branded as racist and lost her job in the time it took to say “viral video.”

Should we blame the digital age – with its privacy-destroying technologies and 24-hour news cycle – for the Sherrod mess, too? The speed of the web was a factor, sure. Even more, it was the “gotcha” approach of the race-baiting Andrew Breitbart, who has tried, and briefly succeeded, in actually delegitimizing real journalism.

What happened to Sherrod is about racism, the knee-jerk response of the White House, and, yes, digital culture. But when the video snippet was released, and the early media pounced on the story, something else was sacrificed. Not privacy. Context.

Context is what journalists are supposed to create and provide. They’re meant to vet material, its source, and seek comment, at minimum. McChrystal, Thomas, even Mel Gibson all had that opportunity. Breitbart didn’t do that when he posted the video, proving he’s not a journalist. But, what’s even more disturbing, for too long a while, neither did some of the so-called legitimate press.