According to the Guardian, “PR has taken over the media” based on the launch of the website, churnalism.com (created by charity the Media Standards Trust) which reveals the extent to which certain national online news is derived direct from press releases.
There’s a rather muddled premise here with the confusion of several different points.
Firstly, there’s the assertion that it is easy to get ‘faux stories’ into the mainstream media – examples being the fictitious claim to ownership of the new Downing Street cat and the penazzle (don’t ask!).
Actually the Larry the Cat is really Jo story seems more typical of the way the media has latched onto citizen journalism seeking anyone who has a personal story to tell. And the penazzle is hardly that far fetched given much of the stuff that appears every day – which has been lapped up by media that is increasingly celebrity and trivia driven. Indeed, the Guardian itself reported the fining of the ‘cat bin woman’ last year under the heading of World News – Animal Welfare.
I’m no fan of lazy PR tactics that involve spurious statistics and other ‘creative’ approaches that seek coverage as the sole end goal (classic press agentry). But that’s not to say I don’t enjoy the art of a good pseudo story – especially the great oldies by the likes of mastro publicist Jim Moran.
The main issue with the trivialisation of news by such media relations techniques is the extension beyond ‘stolen’ cats, penile decoration and the like into areas that deserve a more serious public debate. For example social marketing (that is marketing for social issues) relies on ‘shock and awe’ techniques that seek media attention over genuine engagement.
The second key point being made by assessing news coverage against press release content is the trend towards ‘cut and paste’ journalism. In many cases, I agree this is a terrible practice – especially when pretty badly written releases are simply reproduced or a release is really just an advert seeking ‘free’ coverage. Here we can reflect back to Ivy Lee’s declaration of principles which declared back in 1906 that the media should disregard any press handout that was really an advert.
With millions of press releases emailed every day there’s surely enough good material out there that the journalists can hit delete on the rubbish.
However, my third observation about the churnalism website is that it ignores the fact that a well written, well researched press release should be used pretty much verbatim. Knowing what journalists want in terms of what is an appropriate story for their audiences, writing in a style that reflects their publications and providing relevant facts, background information, quotes and so forth is at the heart of effective media relations.
This is what journalists frequently rant about in respect of how PR practitioners fail to meet their needs. So if we get it right, why shouldn’t they use our words instead of rewriting them?
Another angle on this is that journalists frequently argue only former hacks are equipped to be PR practitioners on the basis of understanding the media and being able to craft a ‘ready to use’ release.
Finally, although the churnalism website is a bit of fun ironically it is actually a device intended to generate media attention for the Media Standards Trust (recycling a concept created by Nick Davies in Flat Earth News in 2008).
In seeking this publicity on the back of the ‘spoof work of film maker Chris Atkins, the MST seems to have practised what it is railing against rather than really stimulating debate on the serious issues in respect of news production, commercialisation of media, poor PR practices and so on.
Perhaps we should paste its press release into the site to see how much of the coverage generated is reporting this publicity story word for word.