Last week’s PRSA luncheon featuring a panel of owner/publishers and editors of local weekly newspapers ended with attendees chewing on some hot issues that have long confounded relations between journalists and public relations practitioners.
It's far too complicated a situation to explore in one blog post, but there are some main underpinnings that can be capsuled and discussed later.
Except perhaps in the sports and entertainment fantasylands, journalists and public relations practitioners generally are not buddies. They are colleagues in the communications industry. They enjoy First Amendment privileges but with divergent, sometimes conflicting, aims. They partner now and then on matters of public urgency and humanitarian causes. They may respect each other's expertise, enterprise and influence, but they share an unsettled relationship. They harbor suspicions of each other’s motives and abilities.
Journalists’ chief loyalty is, or should be, to the public’s right to know and to dispense news and information that’s fair, accurate and balanced (their test in court that they don’t always pass). Public relations practitioners’ chief loyalty is to their employer and/or their client and the right to create information that serves the employer’s and/or client’s priorities.
One group claims to be objectively adversarial and seeks transparency, particularly from the public sector. The other embraces advocacy and markets angles tailored for self-serving ends -- sometimes cleanly with high standards and ethical practices observed and sometimes by hook-or-crook use of false facts, and not just in political campaigns.
Those are certainly arguable generalities from a journalist’s point of view, but I base them on years of being on the receiving end of p.r. initiatives at newspapers around the U.S. and a stint long ago on the other side of the fence in p.r. land. And they are views shared by many journalists, including panelists Lee Newquist, publisher of the Fort Worth Weekly, and Blake Ovard, managing editor of The Star Group weeklies.
When asked at the luncheon how public relations practitioners could be of the most value to them, they didn’t mince words. They want to talk with key sources, they said, not spokespersons. They want p.r. people to facilitate newsgathering, not undermine it, block it or act as agents of obfuscation.
“I’m from an old school,” Newquist said, “where p.r. companies, at least on the journalism side of what we do, are problematic because they’re in between (us and) the person with the real answer.”
One of his examples was related to a recent cover story by staffer Jeff Prince who profiled American Airlines’ current conditions.
“Our reporter was snooping around,” Newquist said. “I get a call from a p.r. person at an agency (working for the airline): What do you guys want to know? What’s the angle of the story? I don’t want to talk to a p.r. person. I want the president of American Airlines or an employee to call us back.
“I don’t want to talk to a p.r. person whose sole role in their career is to spin it and make it sound good. We want to talk to the main source about a particular story. … I didn’t want to talk to the p.r. company. American Airlines has a hundred p.r. people. We wanted to talk with them,” he said, adding that ultimately AA execs, including corporate spokeswoman Missy Latham, spoke with Prince.
Ovard said he meant no offense but was equally blunt: “All of the cities have a PIO, and their job is to keep you from getting the story, so they don’t understand why I don’t want to talk to them. They say, ‘Well, I have all your information.’”
Marc Flake, Tarrant County PIO, took issue with those views, noting how he had facilitated the Weekly’s requests for a recent cover story by Peter Gorman that examined issues related to the medical examiner’s office.
“I was very helpful with Mr. Gorman,” Flake said, “and told him who he needed to talk to, gave him background, gave him all the documents (and) contract information he needed. I don’t stay between you guys (and county sources). I help you get the information you need.”
PRSA members applauded Flake’s clarifications and defense of p.r. practice. Newquist acknowledged with appreciation Flake’s assistance in the newsgathering process. “This gentleman was very helpful … kudos.” Flake’s work, he added, was a model of what journalists value: “Talk to us. … don’t stand in our way.”
Newquist noted that while elected officials such as Sen. Wendy Davis will talk with the Weekly, Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief will not. “He’s a public servant who will not talk to the Fort Worth Weekly. I have a problem with that.”
Flake’s comments drew a tip of the hat from Ovard as well: “That’s exactly the PIO stuff we need. Too many people view their job as blocking the information.”
All of this reminds me of a p.r. ad I saw in Advertising Age back in the late '70s. I loved its message then and I love it now. It was crunched into a headline: "When all else fails, tell the truth." Hot damn. Bull's-eye. As married people know, or should know, that's some of the best advice humans can get, particularly journalists and public relations practitioners.
What do you think? The floor’s open …