The Blurred Line Between P.R. and News
by Kelli Arena and Susan Nester '88
During our days at CNN, our show would get 40-50 pitches a day from public relations reps trying to peddle everything from experts on issues to the latest surveys to actual story ideas. Most were non-newsworthy or uninteresting and went straight in the trash. Only a few bubbled to the top and made it to the list of items we might use on the air. And we were actually grateful for those — compelling or interesting pitches that showed the p.r. rep did some homework. A good p.r. person knows how a news story is written, understands how video is edited, and has developed an instinct for news cycles and how newsrooms work.
Okay, the work of the reporter and the pitchman is similar. No doubt about it. But they serve two different masters. And this is important to remember. Journalists should never pander to corporations or special interests. But that is exactly what p.r. reps are paid to do. Journalists should report the good, bad and ugly. Public relations pros try to minimize, or spin, the bad and ugly and play up the good. The lines between the two professions should be clear, bold and well understood.
Unfortunately, they are not.
The lines are becoming more blurred than they have ever been. What’s more, as we all know, journalism has taken a bad economic hit—thousands of journalists have lost their jobs—and the ones left behind are being asked to do way too much.
The result is great for those of us in public relations, but we believe, very bad for the integrity of journalism.
An example: I (Nester) am the broadcast media director for a large trade association in Washington, DC. A reporter from a major news organization called me recently for “help” on a story. But the reporter was working on three other stories at the same time. She knew I used to be a television producer, so she asked me to dig around and do some research within my organization on a certain topic that interested her and her editors. This is a p.r. person’s dream. As quickly as possible, I gathered all the information, selected two of my members for on-camera interviews and drew up some suggested questions, set up the video shoots, and handed over everything to the reporter. This story wasn’t controversial in any way. I genuinely tried hard to provide accurate, useful, and fair information. And I think I did. But of course, these interviews made my people look smart and helpful. I fully expected the reporter would get back to me with questions or eventually find another element to this story to balance things out. But she never did. Instead, she sent me her script for “approval.” Clearly, this was great for my association, and for me personally as its p.r. person. But as a former journalist, I have to say it bothered me. I still cannot believe any journalist worth her salt would ever run a piece completely put together by an interest group. Back in the day, CNN would have fired me for that.
And that’s not all. Over the summer, my organization decided to run some ads on a national radio network. For years, I’d had been trying to pitch stories to this radio network with little success. Suddenly, this summer, I got calls just about every week for interviews and information on a bunch of different stories. I’d like to think it was just my hard work finally paying off, but I fear the interest in my group and industry was instead because of the money my association had spent. Interestingly, when sponsorship stopped, yes, so did the phone calls from that newsroom. What? It suddenly wasn’t news anymore?
So how does a news consumer know what’s really news? Something is wrong with this picture. And it raises a whole host of ethical questions. Public relations reps have no responsibility to anyone but their employers. It is not their job to make sure stories are balanced, or to point out the flaws in their company’s new product line. It’s not their problem that journalists are falling down on the job. It’s too bad that, too often, it is only the p.r. flacks’ good conscience that stands between them and a vulnerable public.
Kelli Arena is a former CNN correspondent and is now the Dan Rather Endowed Chair at Sam Houston University in Texas. Susan Nester '88, is Broadcast Media Director at IIABA. Previously she worked as Washington financial producer for CNN, organizing business coverage for CNN's nightly "Moneyline with Lou Dobbs" and other world financial programming.