Trevor Morris. Media and PR

A Coventry Conversations session

Trevor Morris was introduced as ‘a Visiting Professor in Public Relations at The University of Westminster, an author and senior level consultant’.

He mainly spoke about PR’s role in the media, why journalists need PR, and why journalists should learn PR.

Morris started off with the argument that journalists don’t like PR people – they use words like ‘scumbags’ to describe them. He cited a recent research on the PR coverage in UK media which shows only 9 % of it is positive. 83 % of media references on PR in UK media are negative, and the journalists often refer to PR as to a ‘parasitical occupation’ and a ‘ridiculous job’.

Truth has been destroyed by public relations executives or ‘scum’ as we like to call them. Power has shifted from the editors to the PRs.
citing Bryan Appleyard, taken from the book Morris co-authored ‘PR – a persuasive industry?’ (source)

However, PR provides a bery big part of media content. In fact, according to Morris, around 80 % of newsprint originates from PR. He cited Nick Davis’ findings when analysing 5 prestigious UK newspapers60 % of the stories inside depended wholly or partly on PR and news agency content; 30 % of coverage contained evidence of PR. As a whole, PR material found its way to about 50 % of news copy.

Morris argued that these figures are underestimating the situation – because, the cited analysis focused on these 5 newpapers, which are actually better served by reporting staff than most other newspapers. When it comes to special sections (like Motoring, Travel, etc.), and especially when looking at local media – they are extremely dependent on PR.

Another finding was that, even in a newspaper such as The Wall Street Journal, almost 50 % of all stories in an issue they looked at originated in PR.

In the last years, editorial space has become 3 times more than it was before – so there is less time and more content to produce, which means there is less time to write original articles and check sources.

Morris made another interesting point – when it comes to reporting accidents, journalists are around a crime ‘only once every 20 years’. So for all other occasions, they depend on information given to them by the Police and other authorities – which is, more or less, PR content.

So in conclusion, he suggested that almost everything in the media is PR.

Morris also spoke about the relationships between journalists and PRs.

Why do journalists dislike PR people?

  1. When it comes to a press release, the PR would do anything to get his/her story in the news. But then, when the journalist wants to ask a specific question, the PR would be uncooperative and won’t answer questions.
  2. PR people are more highly paid, and the gap is getting bigger.
  3. PR people have better working conditions and career prospects. They have access to better and more reliable technology. PR is actually referred to as the third most popular job among graduates, according to Morris.

81 % of senior journalists are said to be facing cost cutting because of the recession. The situation is much brighter in the PR sector – actually, more and more people and organisations are starting to utilise PR. From the most obvious – celebrities, brands and politicians – to all other various types, such as charities, churches, NGOs and the Police. He also said that too many journalists don’t question PR from NGOs. For example, he spoke about radio shows that chat about ‘results from a research recently published by scientists’. Who are these scientists? How was the research conducted? Has the information been checked? Or is it just some scientific organisation’s PR department striving for media coverage, or someone wishing to sell an idea?

Interestingly, there are individuals and organisations with vast PR resources, who have just disasterous PR reputations. So, on this base, the effectiveness of PR can be questioned.

He gave a quick reference that a lot of cultural and social movements throughout the 20th century owe their success to PRthe civil rights movement, the anti-war movement during the Vietnam war, and feminism to name a few.

An interesting example of PR in the media was the recent oil leak crisis with BP. The two main sources of information were the PR departments of two big organisations involved – BP and Greenpeace.

PR’s role is often referred as ‘to keep stories out of the media’. Morris also spoke a little about PR’s history: in the US, it arouse in reaction to the power of media. Corporations felt under pressure from media, so they invented a way to try and control what is being published about them.

There was a question about citizen journalism: ‘Will it save journalism?’ – No, Morris answered. Often, it is disguised PR.

One of the differences between journalists and PRs, argued Morris, is that journalists have less strategic views, perform worse when it comes to corporate relations and can’t handle clients. So there is a better chance for a PR to become a good journalist than for a journalist to fit well into PR environment. Of course, practice shows there are a number of good examples of journalists fitting perfectly into their PR role when changing jobs and organisations.

Today, PR is bigger than journalism. In fact, the media costs of production clearly show that it wouldn’t be economically effective to only count on pure journalism for providing news content. One of the reasons for that is the recent change in media and advertising landscape. There are numerous new places for advertising today – while in the past, the only place you could advertise was media. So, less advertising goes to the media today, which means less money to spend on journalism.

Morris pointed out that it’s quite odd media studies people usually don’t look at advertising and PR while at University, yet this is where money for media comes from – media depend on PR and advertising financially. Also, with the PR-isation of media, it can be said that media also depend on PR as a content provider, so Morris suggested journalists need to know more about PR and advertising – they can’t be left uninformed about something they heavily depend on. Another example is that press-conferences have become very rare – they are less and less attended, because journalists receive the press releases ready, and often don’t have the resources (or time) to attend an actual press-conference and ask questions in person.

Some journalists, said Morris, worry that PR has become too pervasive in modern society, and the power of media has been defused because of that. But: do we need to do something about it? There can be more transparency, but when it comes to journalists, it would mean to ask them to reveal their sources of information. At that point, they make a step back and say: No, not that kind of transparency! Morris suggested journalists are concerned that if they confess where and how they get their information, their image as seekers of truth can be demolished.

PR, on the other hand, has a more clear role in media – you’re not there to tell the whole truth, but rather to sell an idea.

When asked about the antagonism between journalism and PR, Morris said it would actually be unhealthy to not have it – now, the two groups are suspicious about each other, so there is a creative tension – which has a positive effect on the end product in media.

Something I found interesting is the difference in how PRs and journalists get their information. In the ideal case, the journalist is supposed to dig, sometimes to fight for information – while on the other hand, the PR’s job is to know everything about the problem or organisation they are writing about, so they usually have easy and almost unlimited access to relevant information.

When it comes to PR’s and journalists’ role of telling the truth and promoting transparency (there was such a question in the session), Morris pointed out that most organisations find it hard to function if they are fully transparent.

When asked about internal communications within companies and organisations, he answered that it’s a very important part of how a company functions. Because it’s company policy, often people use propaganda within the company, since they have more levels of controlling what type of information is used and how. An example of internal communication strategy are all guidelines for approaching media and using social media for employees that companies have been constantly adapting for the last couple of years.

Morris used 9/11 as an example of a strategy how to disseminate bad news – announce it on a day with much worse news. There was a famous line by a press officer about 9/11 – ‘It’s a good day to bury bad news.’

When asked about morality in work, because sometimes the PR’s job involves hiding certain information or making something bad look good, he said he has refused working for cigarette companies although he’s a smoker himself. Still, he gave the practical advice to not try to lie (even if you think it’s part of the job in PR) – because you’ll get caught.

So is PR good or bad?

‘People don’t like PR when it’s for causes they don’t like.’, said Morris.

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