Sometimes I think that George Orwell had it about right when he said that journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations. I was reminded of this when a publisher recently asked me to critique a b-to-b publication that she sensed was starting to soften editorially. And there they were, the tell-tale signs of a magazine that had fallen into the easy marketing arms of PR:
Of Me I Sing: Single-source stories with quote after promotional quote from a marketing manager or company representative.
Old Friends: Stories using the same spokespersons from companies that have been running ads in the magazine for years.
Kiss and Sell: Stories that read like a big wet kiss for a company, with paragraphs loaded with features, benefits and unsubstantiated product claims as opposed to solid facts.
Guest Sellers: Features or guest columns by industry leaders who are interested in getting the corporate word out there from a seemingly neutral platform, usually written by the PR staff at the company.
New Products R Us: Warmed-over press releases with contact information (Web site, toll-free numbers) at the end for further information.
Bogus News Stories: Announcements of new "surveys" or "reports." A press-release device used to impart authority to the company that conducted a poll at great expense and with the most authoritative technique, and is now basking in the results.
How High Is Your PR Quotient?
Take the number of editorial pages based upon PR sources and handout information, divide that by the number of pages based upon original reporting and if your PRQ is higher than fifty percent you may have a problem. Or at least an addiction.
The problem is not the PR community. They’re just doing their job, spectacularly well. Most have been trained at journalism schools, worked at publications, and know that editors are often overworked, understaffed, under budgeted, and desperate for stories.
PR folks know your priorities, your pressures, and how to lighten the editorial load.
The problem is us. If readers knew how collaborative some of these pages are, the end result for a publication would be embarrassment and severely diminished credibility. The scenario is not much different from product placement, whereby movie and TV producers take big money for putting brands into stories, a powerful, and deceitful, advertising technique, because consumers aren’t told they are being advertised to.
But in publishing, you don’t always get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate. Accordingly, four key tips and tactics for dealing with the onslaught of PR pitches:
Keep the Reader in the Room: Editors should eschew insider chumminess with PR sources and focus on sharing news and helpful information with readers. That’s job number one.
Press Release Management: Consider releases the start of a story idea, not the story itself. Follow up with interviews; report on the product or event. If you run the release flat-out, advise the readers accordingly in a head note or box: This is information provided by the manufacturer.
Reporting Balance: Use multiple sources for stories. Quote for variety and thoroughness. Develop sidebars for opposing views and balance.
Develop a Policy: If you don’t have one already, draft a statement that clarifies how PR sources are to be handled before, during and after the generation of a story. If a source wants to see the story, or the quotes used from an interview, and you find yourself yielding on this point, you are now part of the PR process. You must be in a position to say no. Otherwise, you are surrendering the only thing that reporting is all about: The final word. It’s best if your publication prohibits any kind of preview by inquiring sources or their PR representatives. Nothing personal, it’s just policy.
John Brady, visiting professional at the Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University, is former editor-in-chief at Boston Magazine and Writer’s Digest, founding editor of M: The Magazine for Montessori Families, and author of The Interviewer’s Handbook. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.