Debunking the ‘PR Has Too Much Influence’ Myth

When the Columbia Journalism Review and ProPublica examined the growing value of public relations and its relationship with journalism, the scope of the piece, and the reaction it received from the journalism community were fairly predictable. A rousing chorus of “PR has too much influence” over [fill in the blank] seemed to fill the comments of both and ProPublica’s website.

This notion was further advanced in July when New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane explored the role of public relations professionals working with journalists in a blog post titled “PR Professionals: Bane or Boon?

The underlying sentiment in both seems to be that as journalism continues to shed thousands of its craftsmen, while public relations grows rapidly — both in stature and the number of practitioners — there is an overt level of influence being exerted by the latter over the former. And the world is just bad because of that.

But is this really the case? Frankly, I don’t buy this “PR has too much influence over journalism” excuse.

To me, it’s a cop-out. It’s part of a disturbing trend of lazy journalism that has cropped up in recent years, in which a class of reporters blame journalism’s ills on others, especially public relations. It’s the type of lazy journalism that breeds “churnalsim” (which I addressed in a previous PRBC post) the pernicious form of rehashed reporting in which journalists literally republish parts or all of a press release and slap their byline on it, as though it were their own original reporting, when it clearly is not.

Let’s look at this a little more logically and objectively. One can only have influence over another if the person whom one is trying to influence allows that to take place. In other words, a PR pro can only have influence — or as some in journalism would deem it, undue influence — over a reporter if that reporter allows that to happen.

And let’s be honest, this does happen at times; but not for the reasons that are conveniently given. These amount to the standard line that a PR pro represents a big, bad company that can end a reporter’s career, or there are just too many PR pros, sending too many email pitches for the likes of WIRED’s Chris Anderson or former TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington to deal with and they Must. Give. In.

Again, I’m not buying it.

In reality, it goes more like this: Big-shot reporter needs access to a big-shot CEO for a big-time feature. Big-shot reporter, who is not used to being turned down — ever — by anyone, calls up the PR pro working at big-shot CEO’s company. Big-shot reporter asks to speak with big-shot CEO, and when the PR pro starts asking questions — like he should (you know, “What is the scope of this story?” “Who else are you interviewing?” “When will it be published?” etc.) — big-shot reporter gets pissed. His work has been called into question. Well, really, it hasn’t, but that’s how he feels. Again, he’s not used to getting pushback like this from non-reporter types.

And so, big-shot reporter starts telling everyone that PR pros in XYZ industry have far too much influence. Never mind the fact that the vast majority of PR pros in any industry don’t even engage in media relations (which I pointed out to The Times Public Editor in a comment left on his blog post). And never mind the fact that it’s the job of a PR professional to protect his company’s and clients’ reputations. And never mind the fact that the reporter could try some ingenuity and actually call someone other than the PR pro representing big-shot CEO or the big-shot CEO himself to get to said CEO.

No. None of that matters once the idea has been planted that PR professionals have far too much influence over the media.

But in reality, do we really? In an age when much of media is democratized, commoditized and otherwise available to just about anyone, through almost every ideological and political lens, it seems to me a little preposterous and just plain foolish for reporters to wail that PR is overly influential in their work.

After all, if you are truly a strong and successful professional, shouldn’t you be able to tell someone No and figure out a way to get your work done without being pulled into their supposedly influential labyrinth?

Again, I’m not buying this excuse. I’m not denying that some PR pros try to influence the media. Our industry isn’t perfect. But for a vast cohort of media to claim, as did the commenters in the CJR/ProPublica piece, that PR is ruining media by overtly influencing the work of reporters is simply unfounded.

More than that, it is an excuse, one I believe the public sees through pretty clearly. Joe Public doesn’t care where his news comes from. Only that it is factual, objective and well reported.

One can only be influenced by someone if he or she allows it to happen. Otherwise, the “PR is too influential” excuses are just that: excuses.

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