ProPublica Analyzes PR’s Growing Influence on the News

ProPublica published a story today (with CJR) discussing the rise of PR’s influence on the news process, which is happening as the number of journalists and the number of news stories has fallen. While the story isn’t an outright attack on PR or publicists, it does take issue with a few things, including the “gray area” between truth and untruth that some publicists tend to operate in and the lack of transparency of some PR efforts.

Gary McCormick, former chair of the PRSA, defends the PR industry, saying that lying is not the way to grow a PR business, but rather to destroy it. Still, it’s the “truthiness” of some information that sources in the story frown upon.

“The information is true enough. It is slanted. It is propagandistic. But it is not false,” Eric Alterman, Brooklyn College professor and columnist at The Nation, tells ProPublica.

In addition, the story discusses the increased number of instances where PR messaging makes its way into news stories, with more articles coming directly from press releases and other PR materials.

And where PR isn’t impacting the news coverage, it’s reaching audiences directly either through their own content or behind-the-scenes strategies and tactics. Without a journalistic filter, it’s difficult for news consumers to determine whether information they’re receiving comes with a “slant,” the story says.

Certainly, we’ve heard this all before, and the calls for tighter, clearer PR ethics have been previously made. Many publicists will agree with McCormick and talk about the need for honesty in PR work and the good that the industry does.

The ProPublica story’s message is the growth not just in size (there are many more members of the industry nowadays), but impact of the PR industry. On the one hand, this is a good thing for PR, which has waited for its chance to have that coveted “seat at the table.” But it can also lead to a sharper focus on how exactly PR is impacting, not just on the news, but issues facing government and the populace, such as healthcare. If that influence is seen as too great, with corporate self-interest prevailing over the public good, both the industry and clients could take a beating.

What else should the industry be doing to improve its reputation? And are there lines that PR shouldn’t cross?