Public relations and lobbying industryan overview
By Corporate Watch UK
Completed April 2003
5.0 PR and the Media
5.1 Planting Stories
5.2 Building Relationships
5.3 Stopping the Press
5.4 Dumbing down the media
5.5 PR on the Internet
"News is what someone does not want you to print - the rest is advertising,"
The relationship between the news media and the PR industry is a complex and increasingly symbiotic one. The media is the central vehicle for much of the PR industry's messages. PR practitioners want to place their stories in the news or other publications and programmes. Without being able to do this, PR would lose one of its main avenues for communication with the public.
The media in turn has become more dependent on PR to supply content to fill air time or column inches. Whilst newspapers have been steadily shedding staff over the last couple of decades they have simultaneously managed to produce ever thicker publications, and the ever growing ranks of PR are happy to help fill the pages.
The power of the big agencies and spin doctor goes beyond this however. As the primary point of contact between businesses and the media, PR people can control access to information which journalists want. This gives them tremendous leverage in negotiating with journalists, as they are in a position to refuse information. Magazine editor, Mark Dowie, comments "even the most energetic reporters know that they have to be somewhat deferential in the presence of a powerful publicist. No one on a national beat can afford to get on the wrong side of a Frank Mackiewicz or a Harold Burson, knowing that their firms [Hill & Knowlton and Burson-Marsteller] together represent a third of the most quotable sources in the country."
One of the primary tools for supplying content to the media is the press release. This was invented as a PR tool by Ivy Lee [see section 1.3]. Ideally the press release will provide a publishable article that a over-worked (or lazy) journalist can publish with minimal effort. Anyone with much experience of press searching will have noticed how the same article can appear in several different publications under different names, with only minute changes. Newspapers acquire such content from press agencies such as Reuters or the Press Association which employ their own journalists, as well as from PR agencies and some intermediate services such as PR Newswire.
The Press Association
The largest supplier of content to the UK press is the Press Association. The Press Association, formed in 1868 by a group of newspaper publishers, supplies content to every national and regional daily newspaper, to major broadcasters, online publishers and to a wide range of commercial organisations. Customers subscribe to its news and features lists from which they can take stories to print or broadcast.
Much of the Press Associations content is produced by its network of journalists and photographers, and the PA is proud of its reputation for impartiality. However the Press Association's independence is compromised by its relationship with the PR industry.
One of the PA's 27 shareholders is United Business Media, owners of PR Newswire, and other corporate communications companies. In addition the Press Association now offers services to PR agencies, "PA’s unique position at the centre of the media industry in the UK enables us to provide support for many PR and marketing campaigns". Space on PA's newswire service is sold in bulk, to other more commmercial newswires and PR agencies. PR agencies gain an extra level of anonymity by having their content supplied by the prestigious Press Association.
Video and Audio News Releases
More recent developments include the video news release (VNR) and the audio news release (ANR) for TV and radio news respectively. These are pre-edited video or audio news stories sent to broadcast news stations in just the same way that press releases are sent to the print media. VNRs have become quite ubiquitous on US television news particularly on the smaller TV stations which lack the resources to fill airtime with quality news.
In the UK, VNRs have not reached the same penetration into newsrooms but they are gaining ground. The main national news channels are far more assiduous in applying editorial control than their American counterparts. According to VNR producer, Grapevine Communications, " VNRs so far have been most successful with local ITV newsrooms and with satellite and cable broadcasters; BBC is not in favour, and both BBC and ITN take a fully-independent editorial line."
VNRs still wield influence however. Medialink, the market leader in VNR and ANR production, claims to have placed stories on BBC News programs. The BBC was unable to comment on how often VNRs and ANRs are used
In response to inquiries, ITN denied using any VNRs. When presented with evidence suggesting that they had used VNRs, ITN declined to comment.
Many journalists have a distrustful attitude to PR. They need to have a wariness of professional story-pitchers. In order to overcome this barrier, the PR agencies aim to build ongoing relationships with journalists and media sources. The more and better relationships they can build, the more influence they can exert on the media.
The nature of the relationship is worth probing if we are to understand the modern media/PR system. Neil Macdonald, editor of 'Business Monthly', the newsletter of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, provides some rare insight into the relationship. He tells of how, in the summer of 2002, he was approached by a number of PR practitioners asking him to provide some advance coverage of the IPRA conference, which was to take place in Cairo that year. Despite feeling "uneasy" with accepting a story from PR people, he ultimately concluded that he "couldn’t afford to create a bad relationship with PR agencies" and assigned a freelancer "who I figured could take the fall if the individuals being written about didn’t like what they read".
"Most journalists will have taken the PR shilling at some point in their career… Most of the time it is a straightforward love-hate relationship," observes Nic Paton, writing in the Media Guardian, "To the journalist, the PR is a necessary evil. And the PR is willing to suffer all that talk about integrity and independence as long as it gets the client those valuable column inches."
A recent report by the International Public Relations Society into 'unethical media practices' concluded that 'cash for editorial' practices are widespread around the world, especially in central and southern Europe and Latin America, in both print and broadcast media.
Although the bribing of journalists and or editors to run certain stories is held to be quite rare in Western Europe and North America (the PR industry's own PR continually stresses its strict adherence to honesty and integrity) some questionable traditions have developed. One relationship-building practice is known as 'selling in'. Journalists are employed as freelancers by a PR agency to write up stories on behalf of a client and to then sell them on to the press. The newspaper then never knows that it is carrying PR and the practice saves a lot of effort for the PR agency. Admitting to 'selling in' is not good for a journalist's reputation and is rarely discussed, so it is virtually impossible to determine how widespread this tactic has become. In spite of qualms of conscience, many journalists end up taking fees from both the PR agency and the publisher.
Like many journalists, Wall Street Journal reporter, Dean Rotbart went on to work for the PR industry. He set up a company TJFR Group to provide intelligence and background information on journalists for PR agencies. "The exclusive subscriber site contains stories, bios, columns, photos and streaming video that are useful to those dealing with and who have an interest in the business media." Such information is doubtless invaluable for media manipulation, enabling them to match the stories they want to place with the journalists most likely to be sympathetic. Rotbart's client list includes the biggest PR companies in the world and some of the largest corporations from every industry sector.
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In addition to planting stories in the press, PR agencies may also need to prevent stories from getting published.
Naturally the PR industry has developed a number of ways of doing this. There is always the threat of legal action as a last resort but this may endanger a carefully cultivated relationship with a journalist or media source, so PR pros prefer more subtle methods first. However, "arm-twisting is used all the time," writes New York Post columnist, John Crudele in O'Dwyer's. A PR department may threaten not to cooperate with an unfriendly journalist, but that is a tactic which may backfire by further arousing the journalist's suspicions. One tactic is for the PR practitioner to contend that a story is old news, at the very least this should plant a seed of doubt in a journalist's mind. Convincing the journalist's editor may be more useful in stopping the story. Another more effective option is to feed the journalist a more interesting story. By the time he has finished with that, the first story may well be old news.
Mark Hollingsworth writes of Sir Tim Bell (of Bell Pottinger), "Bell… is a dealer in information. He establishes close relationships with journalists and editors as a way of ensuring that his client's message is conveyed to his liking. He is Mephistopheles to the reporter's Faust. Favours are offered and received: if the story about the client is spiked, the journalist is handed an even better exclusive about someone else. If the article is published, future cooperation is withdrawn."
PR people may go to far greater extremes than this to censor public debate, however. When David Steinman's book, "Diet for a Poisoned Planet" threatened to bring revelations of pesticide and chemical contamination on raisins (amongst other poisons and foodstuffs) to the public's attention, the California Raisin Advisory Board hired PR company, Ketchum, to conduct damage control. Ketchum obtained details of the book tour and TV and radio appearances that Steinman had planned. They called each media outlet and hassled them to drop the interview or to allow an industry spokesman on the show to present a balanced case. Through the American Council on Science and Health, an industry front group and client of Ketchum, they lobbied the US government to work against the book. Dr William Marcus, a senior science advisor for the Environmental Protection Agency, who had written the book's foreword was pressured to withdraw it. He refused and was later fired from the EPA.
One of the most alarming effects of the burgeoning PR industry's relationship with the media, is that it leads to a steady dumbing down of most news outlets.
Today the media is dominated by big corporations. Few newspapers in Britain or America are not owned by a media corporation. And as the press has become more corporate so its emphasis has shifted from traditional news values - investigation and reporting - to market driven values - profitability, and maximising readership. Noam Chomsky suggests that the most important value for the modern press is to deliver audiences for their advertisers, who supply the bulk of revenue. Fewer journalists are employed and less and less time is available for investigation. Instead content is supplied ever more directly from the press release. Investigative journalism becomes rarer and is supplanted by source journalism.
In this environment the PR companies have become a necessary crutch for the media, but not one that the media is keen to investigate and expose to the public, "like an alcoholic who can't believe he has a drinking problem, members of the press are too close to their own addiction to PR to realise there is anything wrong."
The PR has not been quick in recognising the importance of the internet, but it is beginnning to develop strategies for dealing with the new medium. Some of the key practices with which PR agencies aim to tackle the internet include, monitoring and intelligence of relevant internet sites and communications, and through 'viral marketing'.
The Bivings Group is a PR company that specialises in internet PR. Working out of offices in Washington D.C., Brussels and Tokyo, Bivings conducts its PR services for clients including Monsanto, Phillip Morris, and BP.
In 2001, when Californian scientists published a report in Nature, showing that Mexican maize had been contaminated by GM pollen that must have travelled over huge distances, it was a potential disaster for the biotech industry. However the two scientists were roundly and falsely condemned in their methods and political sympathies by correspondents to a biotech listserver, and in the resulting scandal Nature published a retraction of the article. Research revealed however that emails sent in by the two scientists' detractors originated on Bivings Group's servers. Bivings denied all knowledge.
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 quoted in Michie D., 1997, " The Invisible Persuaders: How Britain's Spin Doctors Manipulate the Media", p.10
 telephone interview with Martin Huckett, Development Manager, Media and Information Sevices, responsible for PR services, 5th Sept 2002
 Stauber J & Rampton S, 1995, "Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry", pp 184-5
 email and telephone correspondence, 30-7-2002
 telephone and email correspondence, 30-7-2002
 Nic Paton, "When is a story not a story?", Guardian, 22-10-2001
 Nic Paton, "When is a story not a story?", Guardian, 22-10-2001
 O'Dwyer's PR Daily, 4-9-2002
 Hollingsworth M., 1997, "The Ultimate Spin Doctor: the Life and Fast Times of Sir Tim Bell"
 Stauber J & Rampton S, 1995, "Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry" pp 5-9
 Chomsky, N., "What Makes Mainstream Media Mainstream", www.znet.org
 Blyskal, Jeff and Marie, 1985 "PR: How the Public Relations Industry Writes the News", p34
 "How PR People Can Take Back The Internet", Holmes Report, 21-9-2001
 Bivings Group web site, www.bivings.com/clients_and_projects/clients_and_projects.html
 Monbiot G., 2002, "The Fake Persuders", published in Guardian 14-5-2002