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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  • Local hack

    I read Ben’s piece with interest this morning as I have to deal with government/public sector press officers on a daily basis.
    And you are right Alan, in order to be sustainable the News Letter needs to establish and build a platform of exclusive and more importantly readable content rather than relying on press releases and email.
    The News Letter is more of a digest of the previous day’s happenings with little or no extra exposition other than the bare facts and a reaction PLUS a lot of Press Association content which is covered everywhere.
    Contrast that to the Irish News and Telegraph which have, on a good week, three or four exclusives on the front (Lissue) and long dissecting analysis inside – read Bio-Tech Scandal!

    I have had many dealings with press officers and have often been exasperated on what they can get away with.
    I have had many conversations with my colleagues on their behaviour, because what I think is more worrying than their output is their engagement in ‘spin’.
    Often you would chat with a press officer, write an email about what you are doing and what questions you have and then tell them you need it by your deadline on such and such a time.

    Then what you actually get is the diluted down “this is what they are saying” normally around the 4.59 point, when you ring and say “hold on that neither answers my questions, or refers to anything I am doing”
    Which I think is patently wrong for a government organisation to engage with – it should be what happened, why, and what they are doing to put it right – it is shocking.

    There have also been times were I have been delayed to the point were they try and make you miss the deadline. Not long ago I was pestering a government department for a response to a fairly serious story I was working on – relative to the coverage – and when I rang an hour after our deadline they said “Sure what can you do now your deadline has passed”
    To wit I told them there was still plenty of time to get something in given the importance we will wait.

    In the end they delivered a statement, which they didn’t want to because they had a planned photoshoot and press release ready to go out later in that week.

    To me they can not engage in any form of spin or misdirection – it is not right and proper.

  • A few random thoughts…

    I feel it would be remiss not give the PSNI press office a mention in dispatches. They actually sent out a photo of a missing person this week as a PowerPoint email attachment. That’s almost an improvement on the usual – pasting them onto a Word document. This is basic stuff going badly wrong.

    And for all those PR people who phone news desks “just to check you got our email”, you have no idea what a huge pain in the behind you really are. Unless it’s something earth shattering, don’t. Just don’t.

    Most individual political press releases can easily be ignored, as they just aren’t newsworthy, are overwritten, late, or state the bleeding obvious. Useful filler on a quiet day though, and reaction can be very handy. Rarely are they a good story in their own right. Where the local councillor comes into their own is with their invaluable local knowledge of events unfolding on the ground. In many ways, they fill the gap left by the ineffectiveness of the PSNI press office when something happens outside office hours. Minor politicians who get reasonable coverage are probably those who phone in with news. Yet the penny hasn’t dropped for others.

    Departmental photos are universally terrible, as last night’s Hearts & Minds viewers will know.

    On the other hand, you nearly always get a wee gem in the inbox every day – ordinary punters with a decent story to tell.

    Ben has a valid point about the ludicrous situation of the 9 to 5 press officer. But it’s just as ludicrous to rely too heavily on them, as Alan suggests.

  • wild turkey

    ah, in simplest terms

    a quality press/journalism should have an essentially adversorial relationship with gov’t and the powers to be.

    PR spinmasters, be they in the public or private sector are a mere extension of the businesses advertising and marketing function….. except in the public sector we pay them and, in the wider and nobler sense, they are supposed to work on behalf of the public. ho ho ho

    bill hicks nailed the relationship between the press and the powers to be

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCUOEoPucJ8

    to paraphrase “if anyone is in government press relations. kill yourself”

  • Local hack

    “Just to check you got an email” I actually love those calls – I ask them if they got the emailer demon and if they have checked their junk mail settings and if they have the email in their sent items – then why would we not have got it.

    The more painful is the here’s a release and then two weeks later did you use it and can I have it.

    Yes is always the answer, if you pay the requisite cover price.

  • cynic2

    Ben’s piece is driven by two enormous misconceptions:

    1 that Government Press Offices want to answer qiestions and provide information. They only want to provide agreed lines to take

    2 that the Civil service generally regards itself as providing a ‘service’ – they don’t. Terms and conditions are sacrosanct and I am gobsmacked he finds anyone at their desk at 4.55 any day of the week in moist Departments

  • nornirontoffee

    I welcome Alan’s measured and intelligent response to Ben Lowry’s somewhat sensationalist and certainly questionable piece in the News Letter.

    Not only would I refute most of the accusations of laziness, working 9-5, evasiveness and so-called ‘spin’, I would like to point out some examples of tactics regularly employed by journalists:

    – Requesting complex and voluminous statistical information within unreasonable timescales

    – Requesting a line in response to a statement from a politician but not supplying the original statement

    – Selectively printing excerpts from statements to suit a particular narrative

    – Requesting a line on an issue close to deadline then saying that a Dept ‘refused to comment’ when in fact insufficient time had been given

    I could go on.

    I would also point out that there is no obligation on Government to subsidise local media through placement of paid advertising, nor should there be. On the contrary, there is an obligation on Government to spend money effectively and to ensure efficiency when placing advertising. Reducing the amount paid to the News Letter (and other outlets) does not equate to an attack on its journalistic values, as asserted by Mr Lowry.

    Finally, I would state that there is simply no need for some journalists (and it is only some) to be taking what is a self-righteous and aggressive position as regards press officers. It is disingenuous and baseless, and does not help relationships.

  • Previous comment removed.

    The yokel – since you value anonymity, don’t expect more of others than you’ll commit to. PS: play the dumb ball, not the man.

  • Maybe part of the problem are some papers over reliance on political/government PR at the detriment to local issues.

    Years of lobby on my side has shown that political interests will nearly always overrule community interest in what information is released.

    This leaves community issues unheard and reliant on blogs, facebook and twitter to get the message out.

    There is truth to the timing aspect of political/government PR it is almost last minute and always well planned and timed so that the government are protected, take for instance the implementation of health trust plans from the Compton Review, like many big health changes in the past its summer time, MLA’s on holidays and 2 moths of preplanned PR to try cover what ultimately will be a Armageddon of health services.

    Now if the papers tap into that over the summer they wont need to rely on poltical PR

  • “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.”

    The MSM can also source from or collaborate with bloggers [flickr image].

  • Nevin – congrats!

  • cynic2

    “some papers over reliance on political/government PR ”

    God bless the inventor of cut and paste> Where would the Tele be without it

  • Would leave calls until after 5, log the time of call, and then print “no-one from XXX was available to comment”. See how quickly change comes.

  • thedissenter – nornirontoffee would suggest that some journalists already do that!

    – Requesting a line on an issue close to deadline then saying that a Dept ‘refused to comment’ when in fact insufficient time had been given

  • wild turkey

    “Finally, I would state that there is simply no need for some journalists (and it is only some) to be taking what is a self-righteous and aggressive position as regards press officers. It is disingenuous and baseless, and does not help relationships.”

    … and this weeks winner of self-indulgent sanctiomonious puerile pedantry prize goes to….. ni toffee!!!. perhaps you can use your post for your next performance appraisal.

    “The Jesuits like to say: “The wise man never lies.” But in the army of my day, any soldier (or indeed discomfited general) who spent too much time twisting about the language of regulations in his own favor was called a guardhouse lawyer. I now put the case on the evidence at hand, that we have here a compulsive guard-house lawyer or quibbler. Straight sentences must be bent like pretzels to change meanings to score points. But then much of what passes for literary discourse in these states is simply hustling words to get them to mean what they don’t.’

    Gore Vidal New York Times 19-9-1996 Response to a critic re Vidal’s essay Twain’s Grand Tour

    when i was a child, propaganda was seen to be, at best, delusional, or just simply lies. in later, and these now more refined times, it is now practised as dissassembly and disingenuity. and caring, intelligent, socially aware people are paid a good salary to, ah, undermine and contradict that intelligence and concern. t’was ever thus

    it is as old the scriptures, and, as your cogent post evidences , it is clear as the morning dew. thugs and perpetrators glory, and wallow, in their victimhood. their spokespeople merely obey orders.

    but hey, lets be generous. as already posted above, this one is for you

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCUOEoPucJ8

    mahalo

  • Thanks, Alan. It’s ‘reassuring’ to see DRD present abject failure as ‘considerable success’ with a repeat performance ensuring ‘the greatest chance of success’! NIEA isn’t in any hurry to assume responsibility.

  • kathrynjohnston

    Most PRs/press officers do a fairly good job, I think. The ones who don’t usually reflect the ethos of their respective departments.

    My favourite press office story dates back to the early nineties when I rang the Inland Revenue (now HMRC) for comment on a story that shopkeepers in East Belfast paying protection to loyalist paramilitaries could claim tax relief on the payments. Not only did the guy I was speaking to confirm it, he ran through acceptable amounts. I wish there were more like him around today.

  • Carsons Cat

    Hmmmmmmm….. local papers are going down the tubes, but it must all be someone elses fault. Now there’s a shocker.

    Meanwhile, back in the real world precisely no one cares.

  • jthree

    I’m afraid this reads like a slightly hysterical editorial in a school mag.

    Press officers aren’t always totally co-operative? Wow, anyone would think their job is to serve the interest of their employer rather than the interest of journalists.

    Like the man said the Newsletter’s main problem is not press officers. It’s years of
    underinvestment, poor leadership and dwindling sales which has left the paper with an underpowered roster of reporters and subs who rarely break a story and fail to project it when they do. The only thing they seem really interested in is an increasingly screechy and simpleminded attempt to ‘prove’ the Troubles was basically a plot cooked up by Dublin.