Who’s in charge: PRs or journalists?

News Letter logoThe News Letter’s Ben Lowry was written an interesting opinion piece highlighting the jarring interface between reporters, PRs and in particular the government press machine. It sits well alongside Mick’s earlier post about the Hearts and Minds’ discussion around Stormont ‘nationalising’ its own images. [Ed – Is that new media talking about mainstream media talking about really old media?]

Quality journalism costs money, and without readers who dip into their pockets to pull out some coins, most newspapers would disappear. Readers of this or other papers probably aren’t much aware of the people who produce their preferred publication. But among them are journalists who decline better paid work to do so, because they find covering news important and interesting.

With mortgages to pay, some journalists – including one of Ben’s “talented young colleagues” – leave to join the ranks of PR professionals.

Over my 12 years in Ulster papers, including long stints on two local dailies and shifts on the third, I have seen scores of colleagues leave the industry. Most have either retired or gone into public relations (PR).

Part of Ben’s piece is a plea to the “growing army of PR folk” to reduce the volume of email press releases “logos and attachments and time-wasting graphics” that bombard his inbox.

But his major observation is that some public sector press offices seem to be staffed office hours while the newspapers they often want to highlight their stories work much later in the evening.

Public bodies, from councils to police to hospitals, also have press officers. Many are professionals who cheerfully field last-minute queries at anti-social times. But many are not …

Year round, on weekdays at 5pm, all those Stormont press offices close to leave one person on call. Sometimes at 4.55pm I am urging a reporter: “Quick, phone department X.” The feeble justification for this arrangement is that there is no point in them staying when the civil servants with the information finish at 5pm.

Ben suggests:

If press teams are going to work a rigid eight-hour day, then as a modest and immediate reform every department with two press officers should stagger their hours, say, 8am to 4pm and 11am to 7pm to give a bit more cover. Every department subdivision should have a civil servant contactable by phone to help the press team.

Circling in on Stormont, he finishes by reminding readers that departments plan to cut public advertising from many newspapers. He first argues that it’s a blow to readers …

Planning notices, for example, will not be printed. They will go online. Many older people barely know what online means (although in a moment of black comedy during the water crisis, a group that helps the elderly issued a release publicising only a website contact point for information).

… before joining the dots and acknowledging that the benefit is not just to newspaper readers, but also to defray the running costs of its journalism.

Stormont rarely has the courage to cut public services, however wasteful, yet on this matter they seem determined. Where is the austerity in their press departments? Money is cut from a useful information service that also helps fund those who ask questions – reporters. But it isn’t cut from the funding of those who deflect the questions, the press officers.

There will no doubt be some muttering in the halls of Stormont Castle at this piece.

Arguably some of the PR professionals – Ben’s ex- and soon-to-be-ex-colleagues – are keen to reduce the number of press releases (an enormous number are released in the last few days before the official start of an election campaign) and to work more imaginatively to spread word to citizens and stakeholders about their department’s achievements and plans.

However, their hands are tied by ministers and civil servants who expect the press release box to be ticked with no excuses, and change has been slow. Executive Information Services would also point to their increased activity releasing photos and videos on their Flickr and YouTube channels, announcing the d’Hondt party selections via Twitter, and publishing press releases (sometimes hours after their embargo ends) on the northernireland.gov.uk website.

However, Ben and his colleagues have another lever. It’s a lever that has increasingly been used by broadcasters during recent election campaigns.

Set your own agenda.

While each party may hold a daily morning press conference to look at a different policy area of their choosing, programmes like Nolan and Talkback set their own policy agenda for each day and invited all the parties to sing along to their tune.

Many government press releases could be ignored. Readers might be three or four paragraphs less well informed about some initiatives, but few would complain. And departments would push out fewer releases if they knew there was no bang for their buck.

However, the challenge to newspapers would be to use their initiative to fill those column inches with their own original content: a much more costly process, and one the economics of the daily newspaper cycle does not easily allow.

It will be interesting to watch how other parts of Johnston Press (and other regional publishers across the UK and Ireland) adapt to their new models of working. Converting some papers to a single dead tree edition (with lots of supplements) and pushing many stories out online throughout the week may work for advertisers and readers where there is no local competition.

In the meantime, bloggers will no doubt continue to dual source their content from their own original ideas and observations alongside commentary that springboards off stories already running in mainstream media.

PS: If any media or politics students are looking for a project can I suggest that you get a list of the departmental, NIO, Health Trust and PSNI press releases for a week and then buy the morning/Sunday papers for ten days and see how what proportion of press releases from each department/organisation make it into each paper (i) largely unmodified; (ii) with one or two extra quotes added; (iii) with a substantial story built around them and original content. You may also want to track the lag to see which papers build on top of each other’s’ stories.

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