BREAKING: Journalist Has Opinions on Public Relations

A recent piece in Editor & Publisher upset some of our readers.

A quick disclaimer: we here at the Adweek Blog Network give our PR friends a fair amount of flack. We try to balance the positive and the negative and make the latter constructive rather than destructive, but most journalists’ responses to PR are not quite flattering, and public complaints are much more common than kudos.

Still, we were taken aback by a piece that appeared in Editor & Publisher this week after a couple of contacts sent us the link.

In the piece, author Nu Yang positions reps as “PRedators,” writing, “They wait. They lurk. They’re ready to strike.”

“…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.”

That’s true at times–especially for prominent journalists with wide readership who cover consumer-facing industries or general pop culture.

But you kind of have to learn to roll with it, don’t you? It’s part of the game we play. At the very least, you can adjust the spam settings on your inbox.

Yang then elaborates on the effects of both digital media and brand journalism/sponsored content/whatever you want to call it, which have allowed businesses or clients to speak more directly to the public and create their own “news” rather than going through professional outlets and the writers who staff them. This is also true, but the material released by “brand newsrooms” is not the same as that of your average paper or TV station. And sponsorships are, in some form, as old as news itself. Yang writes:

“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.”

The possibility of consumers confusing communications with investigative reporting is a real concern, but it doesn’t amount to publicists trying to steal journalists’ jobs–and as long as sponsored material is labeled appropriately, most readers will see it for what it is: advertising.

We at the ABN get a lot of laughably bad pitches targeting our various properties; everyone in media does. And yes, they get annoying–especially when someone sends a second follow-up to a pitch that was nowhere close to your beat in the first place or cold calls you to ask whether an email would be appropriate while conveying a naivete about what you do and how much time you spend doing it every day.

As Jasmine Bina of JB Communications told us last week:

“There’s something unnatural about the pitching process, because you’re contacting a stranger and selling something they’re not looking to buy.”

Accurate! But blaming PR for the lamentable state of the journalistic discipline is just scapegoating an all-too-easy target. If we’re looking for a responsible party, we should think of readers and viewers who either don’t think they should have to pay for news or simply choose not to because so much of it is already free.

Just as it’s not fair to single out Ms. Yang, so it’s not fair to blame one industry for the decline of another, especially when the two have such a symbiotic relationship. (That statement may not be as true as it once was, but it’s still true.)

Many journalists will have to write sponsored materials to make a living now and in the future. Many PR professionals will have to promote products, people, and practices that are not healthy, innovative, or beneficial to the public at large in any way. Neither of these things should be celebrated.

But the world will continue to turn–and we won’t accomplish much by reducing one another to “predator” and “prey.”