Journalism, as we know it, is going to hell in a handbasket.
This is a serious matter, of course. Journalism is the Fourth Estate, and we all depend on the freedom of the press and its willingness to tell important stories. personally, I’m positive that journalism will survive, but it’s not going to be a comfortable ride getting there.
Communication as a profession, on the other hand, is doing just fine. The media logic is constantly evolving, and so are we. Obviously, there’s going to be friction as communications and journalism overlap. Against such a backdrop, let me pose this rather naïve question:
More “flacks” than “hacks”
According to journalist Mike Rosenberg, there are now five PR professionals on every news reporter in the US, an increase from fifteen years ago when there were two “flacks” on every “hack”. The comparison is painting a picture of an army of “Pitchmen”, who, like corporate mercenaries, are attacking journalists from every direction.
And I agree that we PR people can get better at our jobs:
- We can make sure to write better press releases.
- We can get better at pitching journalists.
- We can step up our game as media trainers.
- We can cure ourselves of the platitude sickness.
- We can contribute to less corporate cringe.
However, a reasonable assumption would be that an average PR professional spends less than 5% of his or her working hours focusing on securing editorial publicity. The rest of the time is spent on, well, you know, communications.
With a decreasing number of journalists combined with an increasing number of ways to communicate with inbound publics directly (yes, we do see other people), it makes sense for the PR industry to focus even less on traditional mass-media.
What if, one day, news pitches would stop?
Back in 2000-2003, when I was studying public relations at Mid Sweden University, I interviewed the Editor-in-Chief for one Sweden’s largest evening newspapers — Thomas Mattsson at Expressen. For our thesis, my study partner Markus Christiansson and I wanted to dive deeper into the relationship between journalists and PR professionals.
When asked about whether or not Mattson ever felt irritated about the sheer volume of useless press releases and bad PR pitches, he told us that he wasn’t bothered by this at all. For Mattson, it was important that people pitched their stories, good or bad, to Expressen. He would be more worried, he said, if people, including PR professionals, didn’t pitch Expressen.
In fact, Thomas Mattsson welcomed more pitches. Because that’s what it means to be a gatekeeper.
For a more in-depth look at the relationship between journalists and PR professionals, download (in Swedish) our thesis Strategiska Nyheter (Christiansson/Silfwer 2002), winner of the 2003 PRECIS Award and the 2003 DIK Scholarship.
The elephant in the room: Too few journalists
I can understand resentment coming from journalists who are under the impression that professional communicators are responsible for making matters worse:
It’s true that communication mistakes are being made every day. However, it’s a stretch to claim that fewer mistakes would be made if all PR professionals decided to quit their jobs tomorrow.
And that’s just it. The real problem is that there are too few journalists, not that there are too many companies prioritising professional communication and marketing.
Almost all organizations today, public or private, must communicate professionally with both internal and external stakeholders. The ratio of professional PR professionals versus journalists could be twenty to one, just as long as there are enough journalists to report the news.
If nothing else, maybe news publishers should consider hiring more PR professional, too? Strategic communications might prove to be an essential business ingredient when it comes to reporting the news in the future.