One of the most popular and exciting aspects of public relations is media relations, the broad process of working with the mass media to generate publicity for people, organizations, causes, or events. Among public relations practitioners, it's axiomatic that effective media relations efforts will generate positive media coverage.
If this is true, how obvious are the results of these efforts?
Can you tell news stories prompted by PR people from those developed solely by reporters?
If you haven't thought about this before, I hope this article encourages you to think about it now. Even more than thinking about it, I hope you'll begin looking for evidence of media relations each day as you read, watch, and listen to the news media. There are at least two distinct benefits of this type of observation.
- You become more aware of just how much of the content of the major news media actually derives from public relations sources. -- Most studies report an average of about 50 percent.
- By paying careful attention to the stories about organizations similar to yours, you may pick up tips that will make your own efforts at getting media coverage more successful.
Admittedly, there's some guess work involved in this type of analysis, but it will probably be much easier than you expect once you get used to doing it. By carefully studying the news coverage you normally look at any way, you should soon spot clues that suggest some of the stories were provided in their entirety as news releases or were otherwise pitched, planted or cultivated by a public relations practitioner who wanted to get them in the media.
Here are some clues you can look for in any news story in any medium.
- The story may actually say information came from a news conference, press briefing, or other special event. Or, without being that specific, the story could refer to information that was "announced today" or to a report that "was recently released."
- There may be quotes attributed to a spokesperson or other public relations practitioner. But, don't jump to conclusions about this. It's possible that the reporter asked the PR person for a quote, but it doesn't happen often. Lots of reporters will ask PR people to provide them with an informed source, they usually want quotes from those sources, not from the PR person. Good reporters usually prefer to talk to directly involved subject matter experts -- engineers, accountants, sales managers, police officers, or line executives -- rather than a designated spokesperson.
- The story might refer to "an exclusive interview" or describe internal workings of an organization (physical or procedural) that could not have been obtained without special access or inside information.
- You might have seen essentially identical stories -- not simply different stories about the same event -- in more than one news medium.
- A story that doesn't directly focus on a particular company but which, nonetheless, quotes several people employed by that company might have originated as a release from that company. For example, a story about volunteerism in the local community in which 5 of the 7 volunteers who are interviewed work for the XYZ Company could very well have been orginated as a feature release by XYZ's public relations department.
- A story which quotes only one or two people but which includes unusually long quotes, especially "warm and fuzzy," vapid, or up-beat and glowing ones, might also have originated as a release.
- In trade magazines or special sections of a newspaper (e.g., an annual home improvement section), a story about a new product that just happens to appear on the same page as an ad for that product may be more than a coincidence. There's a good chance the story originated as a release or a pitched idea that ended up as a placement because of the ad.
Remember, these are only clues, not proof that public relations was a factor in the story being covered. Some stories developed entirely by the media and without any public relations involvement whatsoever could come out looking like those cited above.
Also remember that there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these practices from a public relations standpoint.
- Favorable news coverage is one of the most desired goals of all public relations practitioners and their clients, so it's almost impossible to go wrong by getting positive media coverage.
However, in the eyes of hard-core, traditional journalists, some of these practices might be seen as "lazy, less than ideal from a journalism perspective," or even "unethical, violations of journalistic standards." So, to avoid offending these journalists and be sure that you don't unintentionally put helpful and friendly reporters in a bad light in their colleagues' eyes, it may be best to not talk about any of this in the presence of reporters, editors or other media people.
PR-inspired stories on television can appear in several different guises.
- Fully-produced video news release (VNR) prepared by public relations practitioners but aired in their entirety as if they had been produced by the station.
- Stories put together by local reporters but using excerpts from a VNR or other packaged video provided by public relations specialists.
- Stories entirely produced by the station but based on a news conference, special event, behind the scenes tour, or other activity originated by public relations practitioners and made available to the station.
Some PR-inspired stories on TV are obvious and easy to spot. Others are more challenging. Here are some clues. Some of them were mentioned above as applying to all media, but others apply only to television. Watch for ...
- stories shot during a news conference or other special event;
- stories featuring "exclusive interviews" or those in which the reporter reveals that he/she was given special access to a special location or "was invited to speak to" the interviewee;
- stories that purportedly talk about a broad business or industry trend but in which all of the interviewees work for the same company;
- stories in which someone other than the reporter appears in more than one location or in which the same person appears multiple times but wearing different clothing;
- stories that show lots of in-the-plant assembly line or machines-in-action shots, or those that include lots of shots of one particular company's products.
Tip-offs to PR-originated stories are not limited to the content of the story. Sometimes the best clue that a story originated as a PR piece is the fact that the story looks or sounds different than the other stories in the newscast. Sometimes a story looks or sounds different because it was provided by another news outlet -- a network, an affiliate station from another town, or a freelance reporter -- rather than being from a public relations practitioner, but obvious differences in how a story sounds or looks are good reasons to closely scrutinize it and consider its source.
Be particularly alert if any of the following audio and/or visual differences appear:
- one story is presented as a "voice-over" report without an on-camera reporter or interviewer while the other stories in the newcast feature on-camera reporters;
- character-generated identifications of people written across the bottom of the screen in one story are use markedly different typefaces and/or colors than those in the other stories in the newscast, or if one story has no on-screen identifications while the others do;
- one story has crisp, clear, studio-quality sound for everything that's said while the other stories have ambient "natural sounds" in the background while people are talking or, if the exact opposite occurs and only one story has ambient background sounds and the others have accoustically isolated voices without extraneous background noises;
- transitions between camera shots in one story are all dissolves or wipes while the transitions in all other stories are cuts, or if any other distinctive editing style -- e.g., spin transitions, flash cuts, or split-screens -- shows up in only one story in an entire newscast where the other stories have a very similar visual style.
In many cases there'll be no reason to suspect a story resulted from public relations unless you happen to see the exact same story in newscasts on different stations belonging to different networks. Perhaps the entire story won't be identical but you'll recognize a particular piece of video footage. Both of these situations could be the result of the stations receiving a VNR from a hard-working public relations person.
When competing stations present the same story in exactly the same way, it's not coincidence.
The best example of the exact same story appearing in newscasts on multiple stations and networks that I can remember involved an alternative to Botox that the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) was about to approve for the treatment of facial wrinkles.
- Within one week, I saw the exact story -- Same "reporter" speaking the very same words; with the same visuals, the same sequence of camera shots, and the same character-generated graphics and ID's. -- on five different newscasts that aired on three different local stations, each of which was affiliated with a different network.
- It took several pleading phone calls to colleagues who worked at these stations to confirm my suspicion. A major public relations firm working for the company that had developed the new wrinkle treatment had produced a very-polished and compelling video news release (VNR) and then distributed it nationwide via satellite feed to every TV station in the country. Here in Cincinnati, three of the local stations, acting completely independently of one another and without realizing the other stations were doing the same thing, decided to include the complete VNR in their newscasts.
- This was an extreme and unusually clear example; that's why I remember it and made notes about it. In countless other cases, competing stations may used the same VNRs, but they didn't air them in their entirety.
It's also important to remember that apparently similar footage can be just that: similar and coincidental without coming from the same source. Sometimes nearly identical video of an important news story just reflects consistency in news judgment among different stations. For instance, if two stations have nearly identical footage of a local fire, it's probably not really the same footage and it's probably not due to public relations. What's more likely is that the story was just important enough for both of them cover and, when they arrived on the scene, the police and fire officials probably kept all photographers in the same place so they were all the same distance away from the fire and all of their shots were made from the same vantage point. Similarities in this type of story are understandable and not terribly suspicious.
When you evaluate what appears to be identical footage on multiple stations, keep in mind that the more unusual the images are and the more complex the actions are, the more likely it is that the footage was supplied by a public relations source rather than being a coincidence. And, when stories aired on different stations have more than one instance of apparently identical camera shots, even if they're not presented in the same order or with the same narration, it's likely that the stations started with the same VNR but that each of them chose to edit that VNR and re-arrange its footage so they could present the story in "their own special way."
- An example of this occurred several years ago in Cincinnati and involved competing VNRs distributed by Procter and Gamble and by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
- Procter and Gamble was trying to get FDA approval for a then-new, fat-substitute and the CSPI was fighting every step of the process claiming that the new product had dangerous side effects and posed health risks for consumers.
- The situation turned into a bitter public relations battle, especially in Cincinnati, Procter and Gamble's hometown. Over a period of several weeks, there were frequent back-to-back press conferences in which spokespeople for each side tried to counter the arguments of the other side, and countless news releases and statements were issued. Both sides produced several VNRs, released almost daily audio sound bites, and offered stock video footage to any station that would use it. Every one of Cincinnati's four TV stations with local newscasts used this material, and so did the national networks.
- I'm not aware of any station or network airing any of the VNRs in their entirety, there was one particularly critical and heated three-day period during which I logged key shots of laboratory testing taken from the CSPI VNR and of the new product's manufacturing, packaging and distribution taken from the Procter and Gamble VNR. The video clips I tracked showed up being used in the newscasts of all four local stations and in national network newscasts on three different networks.
Again, this was an extreme example, and that's what makes it memorable. High-quality VNRs and well-executed planted stories are not usually this obvious. They're much harder to spot, but they can be spotted if you pay close attention to the news you watch and read.
Challenge yourself to spot a news story that was planted or based on a news release this week.
25 Aug 2011