Public relations vs journalism: is the rise of PR a threat to the fourth estate?

It’s a tenuous time for the news. It’s no secret that the internet and its capabilities to give anyone an audience alongside budget cuts and redundancies have shaken up the industry. So much of a shake in fact that the number of print journalists in New Zealand declined 61 percent between 2006 and 2013 according to census data.

But also worthy of a mention is the rise of PR. A 56 percent increase between 2006 and 2013 resulted in public relations professionals outnumbering print, television and radio journalists three to one in 2013. It has become yet another external force impacting the fragile news industry.

As print journalist numbers dwindle, companies and their PR teams who would usually rely on journalists for coverage of company news to reach the masses are now doing it themselves.

BlueNotes is an online publication by ANZ. Since launching in April last year it has been supplying a constant stream of news relating to the business industry and ANZ itself. Managing editor Andrew Cornell says BlueNotes is ANZ’s response to the “shrinking and fragmenting” traditional media industry.

Traditional media are losing their monopoly of the audience to social media Cornell says, meaning television, radio and newspapers are no longer as successful at reaching the masses. That’s not ideal for companies like ANZ who want to use the media to get content to their audiences.

“You’ve still got the same amount of content that you think is valuable, and ours is news, opinion, analysis, it’s not marketing, so if you’ve still got that content that would have gone to radio, or television or to a business newspaper or to a weekly magazine, you think ‘we still want to get it out there, it’s still valuable’, so now we do it ourselves.”

But it’s not only about trying to reaching the biggest audience possible. Parallel to the shrinking number of journalists is the shrinking space available in news media for content. Cornell says there is just no room for companies to get coverage in traditional media.

“I come from a business newspaper and when I started there the paper was probably 140 pages long, always over 100, and today it’s typically only 40 pages or 48 at most. There’s literally not the same space for these stories to run, but there’s still an audience for them.”

BlueNotes is produced by some of ANZ’s media relations team with Cornell and the senior production editor, Shane White, having previously worked as journalists. Content is provided by a range of experts, consultancy firms, academics and people who are doing research in the subject areas as well as the ANZ team “marshalling what’s already out there and turning it into journalism content”, Cornell says.

Content topics include the economy, technology and innovation, business and finance and sustainability and inclusion as well as ANZ’s own insights and news.

Cornell says it’s produced for a “business audience, but not just business people”. Students, experts and people working in the wider industry also read it, adding to the website’s 25,000 to 30,000 unique views each month and 300,000 unique views a year.

5,000 subscribers have also signed up to the newsletter which Cornell says gets shared around, spreading word about BlueNotes.

It’s not just bankers in the business of news. Real estate agency Bayleys has a team of five journalists, whose career lines include APN (as its forerunner to NZME), Fairfax and Radio New Zealand, producing editorial content to go alongside Bayleys property listings in eight magazines a year.

“This is done to add reader value and editorial integrity to the publications – taking them from simply being listing tools for the marketing of real estate assets, to publications with informative and interesting editorial content,” says communications manager Scott Cordes.

Articles are themed around the properties featured in the magazines, with the Waterfront magazine including stories about New Zealand water sports stars and Country magazine including information about the sheep industry and Kiwi ingenuity.

“The editorial content within the publications adds to their shelf-life among the marketplace and allows Bayleys to utilise targeted and niche outlets for distribution of the various titles as appropriate, in addition to a strong and expansive regular recipient database,” says Cordes.

The magazines are distributed free of charge to take the listed properties to the widest possible audience.

But before we get in a tail spin about journalists going to the dark side of corporate media, Gavin Ellis, a senior lecturer at The University of Auckland and former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, says public relations professionals continue to need access to mainstream media because its audience remains much larger than their clients’ websites or Facebook pages.

In a speech at the 2015 Public Relations Institution of New Zealand ‘Mind the Gap’ conference in Wellington earlier this year, Dr Ellis said: “We still have the ability to reach masses of people through mass media. We do not, in spite of the fact that Facebook has 1.44 billion active users worldwide, have the same capability through digital communication outside that fed by mainstream media. Of course social media is a wonderful tool for reaching targeted individuals and groups. However, social media is a fragmented form of communication.”

Stuff’s monthly audience of 1.8 million, and the New Zealand Herald’s daily combined print and digital readership of 838,000 still trumps a possible audience reach on social media says Ellis.

“They continue to need access to mainstream news media because the MSM audiences remain much larger than their clients’ websites or Facebook pages,” says Ellis.

This may be cause for a sigh of relief from journalists, but concern still remains over the thinning ranks of journalists, and the PR material that now finds its way into mainstream media with minimal modification.

“We’ve known for more than a decade that as much as half the content of a newspaper or news bulletin can be traced back to media releases or other PR activity. I haven’t seen any recent statistics for New Zealand but I’m sure it hasn’t significantly dropped.”

So how do we cure mainstream media of a public relations overload?

Ellis suggests it may be time for public relations professionals, who seek coverage in the mainstream media, to think about applying the same ethical standards to their work that journalists are required to do. In his speech, Ellis put it to public relations professionals that they rethink their ways.

“Do you have an added duty of care not to take advantage of that situation and exploit the weaknesses? Does it require you to acknowledge alternative points or provide contextualising background? Does it, in other words, require you to take on some of the tasks that, in the past, you could legitimately assume was the work of journalists employed by mainstream media?”

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