Beware of PRedators!

by: Nu Yang

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” — George Orwell

Beware of PRedators!

They wait. They lurk. They’re ready to strike.

And as soon as you open up your inbox, the PR email messages come flooding in, or your voicemail is clogged with story pitches from PR reps. For years, the journalism and public relations industries have begrudgingly acknowledged one another, but they knew there was a line between the two professions. Now, it seems like that line has been crossed as PR tries to invade journalism.

The Pew Research Center recently released a report stating that the public relations field was outpacing journalism in numbers and in salary growth. According to the report, the salary gap between public relations specialists and news reporters has widened to almost $20,000 a year over the past decade, and PR specialists now outnumber reporters nearly five to one.

Newspapers are in a vulnerable state right now, operating with fewer resources and employees—and the PR reps know it. But we can’t let them manipulate journalists with free, easy content, and we can’t let them do the work of journalists, not when there is still an institution we need to protect.


The decline of trust

In a December 2014 debate, “Public Relations: The Master Now,” John Lloyd, senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Ed Williams, Edelman CEO and Trish Evans, senior lecturer in public relations at the University of Westminster, discussed if the Internet and social media has allowed the PR industry to dominate journalism.

According to Lloyd, who is also a contributing editor to the Financial Times, the PR industry has been able to take hold of the digital revolution and make it work for them. Thanks to social media, business corporations have turned into media corporations.

He added trust in media is seen as very fragile right now. Businesses are taking advantage of that opportunity as they try to gain the public’s trust through clever PR.

The PR industry is well aware of that fact, so they want to become the public’s “trusted source.” Just take a look at a recent PR News webinar titled “How to Build a Brand Newsroom from the Ground Up.”

According to the course’s description, “Our trainers will also demonstrate how to create and distribute polished content and how to become a trusted source of information for your customers and your industry. You need an operation that generates journalist-quality content in a timely fashion that is flexible and can stay on message. You need a newsroom.”

Journalists reading that should certainly raise their brows. Here we have a PR webinar offering lessons on how to become a trusted source of information and how to turn an operation into a newsroom. We already have trusted sources of information (they’re called journalists); we already have newsrooms (it’s called the media), so the PR industry needs to get off our turf.

Not only are PR reps trying to take over the media’s role of providing trusted information, they’re digging their claws into the shrinking newsrooms.

In a recent Ragan PR Daily article, “What a Changing Media Landscape Means for Marketers and PR Pros,” Rebecca Joyner, Metis Communications director of content services, wrote, “Staffs are smaller than ever, which means that the reporters and editors still on payroll at some publications are trying to do far more with far less. This is why so many journalists who once would have spoken to executives as sources for their own articles now ask PR contacts to provide those pieces as contributed content instead.”

Joyner continued, “It’s why we see things like: A reporter who asks us to suggest headlines that will help him break onto his publication’s list of most-clicked stories; an editor who asks us to draft an article that will run under her byline; a group of trade publications that essentially disappears overnight; (and) erstwhile reporters resurfacing in corporate marketing departments.”

It’s true that the media industry is going through one of their most challenging times ever, but despite these struggles, journalists must not give in to the easy way out. PR reps writing headlines and offering already-drafted articles to editors should not become the future of journalism.

In a Nieman Lab article “A Wave of PR Data,” Jacob Harris, senior software architect at the New York Times, recently wrote about the “wave of bullshit data” being distributed by private companies just so they go viral online.

Harris argued that these stories are inaccurate examples of “data journalism.” They “were generated by companies looking for coverage from online news organizations. The goal is a viral feedback loop, where the story is reaggregated by others, the site surges in its organic search rankings, and the study is tweeted for days.”

These PR-driven data stories, according to Harris, are “perfectly designed to exploit the nature of modern news distribution online.”

“This is not data that is collected and analyzed in response to specific questions and whose quality is checked before publication, but prebuilt charts pushed to news organizations like press releases and targeted against specific topics like sex, anxiety, and shame that are more likely to elicit clicks,” Harris said.

Despite reports that trust in media is at an all-time low, newspapers must still vet the data for the public or else the PR industry will swoop right in.


Brand journalism

In the past, if a business wanted to get their news out, they had their PR reps contact the press, and the press would decide whether or not to move forward on the story. Now, businesses are bypassing that channel. From McDonald’s to Coca-Cola, businesses are creating their own form of journalism called brand journalism.

“The brand framework is the editorial policy that defines the distinctive character of the brand, as well as the boundaries within which the brand stories are created,” Larry Light, CEO at marketing consultancy Arcature and former global chief marketing officer of McDonald’s, wrote in an Advertising Age article.

He continued, “The concept of brand journalism is not only shaking up traditional views of brand management, it is also shaking up traditional views of journalism. Brand journalism is evolving into content creation, using journalistic skills; it is redefining what news is and how it should be communicated on behalf of a brand.”

Brand journalism may be exploding as a hot marketing strategy for companies, but just because it has the word “journalism” in its name doesn’t mean they’re doing the same kind of work as journalists working in newsrooms.

In fact, Light suggested in his article for brand management to “think like a journalist.” If that’s the case, then these brand managers masquerading as journalists should know they need to spend time researching facts and reporting the truth. But the reality is these brand managers aren’t doing any of these things. They’re in the business of sales—just like those PR reps—and they’re not serving the public, they’re serving the organization they’re working for.

But if you ask the people behind if brand journalism is the same as journalism, their answer would be “Absolutely.” According to its website, “It’s simply another kind of journalism, just as political journalism is journalism, sports journalism is journalism, blogs on local issues are journalism, even Facebook posts on neighborhood happenings are journalism…People who use journalism skills to tell stories on companies’ behalf are journalists, and anyone who argues otherwise simply hasn’t grasped the dimensions of the new terrain we’re all occupying. Because ultimately, it’s all about telling stories aimed at specific audiences.”

What about objectivity? “A fantasy,” they say, because “the practice of journalism, at its core, is about earning and keeping a reader’s interest.”

When you look at the big picture, keeping a reader’s interest is just one small factor in journalism. But as the significance of story clicks and website traffic numbers grows, we mustn’t let these brand “journalists” spin their own tales of what the definition of journalism really is.

Sadly, the reason why these brand “journalists” are so good with words is because many of them are former traditional journalists, who understand what to say and how to present information in a way that could pass off as journalism.

Content marketer Marc Cowlin writes in a Thismoment article, “The term ‘brand journalism’ is controversial because the term could imply that corporations are coopting the role of traditional news media organizations.” He believes that even though brand journalists and traditional journalists stand on opposite sides of the fence, they are still very similar.

“Whether you are a journalist working for the New York Times or a brand journalist working for IBM, you are in the business of telling stories that resonate with your audience,” he said.

But I believe if you ask that Times journalist and that IBM journalist the kind of stories they’re working on, the topics and reporting skills would be vastly different. While the Times journalist has to remain objective as he seeks the truth and facts, the IBM journalist has no problem creating a one-sided story that only seeks to paint his company in a positive light and make his boss happy.

Does that sound like journalism to you?

You can’t spell press without PR

No matter how hard they try to pass off the work they do as journalism, no matter how much they want to become the public’s trusted source of information, PR reps will never be able to take over for journalists. They can try to sway journalists with free NBA tickets ( and wear their “I Practice PR, Therefore I Am” ( T-shirts, but it doesn’t change the fact that “PR was built on the simple tasks of salesmanship and persuasion, underpinned by feudal loyalty to clients’.” (Tim Burt, Journalism and PR: News Media and Public Relations in the Digital Age by John Lloyd and Laura Toogood)

The digital revolution allows PR reps to go around reporters and share stories on social media platforms, passing it off as news. The scary part is the majority of the public do consume this information as news. It’s up to journalists to help the public decipher what is newsworthy and what is basically BS, so we can’t allow PR reps to dictate our stories.

There’s a reason why journalists call the PR industry “the dark side.” Where journalism’s goal is to shed light and serve others, the goal of public relations is to manipulate; it’s a self-serving industry that only worries about promoting a brand and image.

The relationship between journalists and PR reps will always remain thorny. In this age of declining revenue and smaller newsrooms, journalists must continue to stand their ground. They can’t idly stand by as PR flacks try to invade the news industry. Instead, journalists must push them right back across the line where they belong.

The Growing Income Gap Between PR Specialists and Reporters

In 2004…
For every $1 a PR specialist made ($43,830 median income), a reporter made 71 cents ($31,320).

By 2013…
For every $1 a PR specialist made ($54,940 median income), a reporter made 65 cents, a 6 cent loss ($35,600).

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics; Pew Research Center

PR Specialists vs. Reporters Over Time
Employee Ratio
Number of PR Specialists (for every one reporter)
In 2004…3.2
In 2013…4.6

Total Employees
2004    52,550
2013    43,630

PR Specialists
2004    166,210
2013    202,530

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics; Pew Research Center

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