PR book On-line Readings in Public Relations by Michael Turney
Spotting public relations efforts in the news.
© 2008 Michael Turney Table of contents Practicing Public Relations main page About the author

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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.

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.

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 ...

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:

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.

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."

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.

Table of contents Working with the media Advertising and publicity Respond to the media Practicing Public Relations main page
25 Aug 2011