Should journalists be able to opt out of PR?

Is it time to set up the equivalent of the Telephone Preference Service for journalists?  Charles Arthur might be the first to sign up given his experiences with the dumber end of the PR fraternity.  His post was followed by online debate regarding why PR practitioners, commonly junior ones, are routinely tasked to phone journalists with pointless questions plugging often inappropriate “stories”.

My view is that this practice is on the same lines as any other marketing-related telephone calls, which as wrote recently, are annoying, particularly if made by someone ignorant of who you are and why you might be interested in what they are “selling”. 

One of the comments at theworldsleading… supports the practice of calling journalists about press releases because it is is sometimes successful.  That’s the same logic that clogs up email inboxes with spam; the odds are one sucker will buy. 

Why do so many people in public relations believe in “pitching” stories?  Is it because journalists are ignoring the avalanche of puffy press releases so that practitioners feel compelled to inundate them with phone calls?  Abuse as ever, destroys a successful method of communications.

So perhaps journalists ought to be able to opt out of receiving unsolicited calls from public relations practitioners, unless they have given their consent.  Shouldn’t we move towards facilitating the media’s ability to pull information, rather than pushing puff at them relentlessly?

Does this fit with the call of for a new discipline – public information.  This would make factual material available to the public; freedom of information, removing the asymmetrical process of information being traded for vested interests at the expense of the public.  He calls it good-fashioned journalism.

The World Assembly of PR Associations’ definition actually proposed the profession should serve both the organisation’s and the public interest nearly 30 years ago.  There is little evidence that this “best practice” symmetric approach (championed by Grunig) is at work in most contemporary PR activities – certainly not in pitching phone calls.

So could PR practitioners also adopt a public information approach – another of Grunig’s models? This would involve publishing reliable, accurate information for the media to report and the public to consider.  Wouldn’t this enable a more intelligent public opinion to form from an evaluation of available material?

The original “public information” approach is characterised ironically as the appointment of journalists as PR practitioners.  Further, it is dated to the work of in originating the press release as a factual, truthful document. But in practice, although truth was seen as important (unlike in the spinning, press agentry model), facts were presented in a way that is largely favourable to the sender. 

I think the practice of unsolicited sales calls to journalists should be controlled by the TPS – it would be good for PR practitioners to recognise constraints on poor practices. 

But any hope that the puff, spin and rhetoric could be moderated – either by journalists or PR practitioners seems rather naive to me.  Everyone has an agenda these days and whether they mean to or not, this is betrayed in any attempt at communications.

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Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

4 thoughts on “Should journalists be able to opt out of PR?”

  1. Oddly enough the UK newspaper industry audit body says in its press FAQ “7. Why will ABC not comment on trends in newspaper and magazine circulation?

    ABC can provide historical data, but it is not the organisation’s position to provide any kind of analysis, merely to offer information which you may then interpret as you see fit.”

    Lesson there?

  2. Adrian – I do like the idea of presenting factual information, not least because it might encourage people to develop better analytical skills for themselves. Something I find all too lacking.

    Also, personally I like to be able to check original sources as part of trying to understand a situation without it being interpreted for me.

    But I fear that most people are prepared to simply follow the spin of others who see potential in undertaking analysis and representing it. There are spinners and followers amongst journalists, politicians, PR practitioners, activist groups, etc etc.

  3. Well as a journalist who pitches in stories more or less as verbal synonses my editor sometimes prefers this to long emails about what it is I’m trying do do. In a brief phone call, an editor very quickly get the gist of the story and OKs it within 60 seconds if it’s worthy of following up. You can apply his to a PR phoning a journo, yes?

    I think journalists have, in part, a duty to put junior PRs right when they phone up appearing rather clueless. I would take a few minutes out to tell them where they are going wrong and what I’d expect in future – then not take the calls if it persists.

    As so much material is PR sourced, it must be within the journalists’ interests to hone the skills of these PR beginners?

  4. Jill – I think there is a difference in what you are doing in that there is an existing relationship so that the editor has agreed to you calling to pitch stories. If a PR practitioner knows a journalist and they have a similar understanding about working together, then a phone call would be okay. Similarly, if you have a really good idea or an invitation, that is right for that journalist, I’m sure a call would be appropriate.

    Journalists could certainly give advice to PR practitioners, but really their companies should train them accordingly. But, clearly in most cases, it is the companies – well agencies largely – advocating the junk call approach to all and sundry without being briefed appropriately or knowing how to conduct a phone call professionally.

    PR and journalist do need to have a good working relationship as they do rely on each other. But this shouldn’t be abused by either side – and if you are a junior PR wanting to build a good name for yourself, then poor practice won’t help.

    The challenge for many young PRs is that they may know this is wrong, but they need to be confident enough to tell their bosses accordingly. As long as managers feel there is sufficient merit in either hit rate or billings to clients for junk calls, I’m afraid they will continue.

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