This is an excerpt from “The Future of Business Journalism: Why it Matters to Wall Street and Main Street” by Quinnipiac University School of Communication Dean Chris Roush.
When Toronto Globe and Mail retail reporter Marina Strauss began reporting in October 2016 on strategy changes at the Tim Hortons restaurant chain, she requested interviews with the company’s CEO and others executives The PR staff told him that interviews would take place at the end of November. However, after interviewing a junior executive and some franchise owners, Strauss was denied any further interviews by the company’s public relations staff, who were upset that he asked about the age and family of the executive The PR people told the paper that personal information was not allowed to be included in the story, according to Duncan Hood, the editor of the paper’s Report on Business magazine.
Tim Hortons canceled all subsequent interviews, including one with its store chief operating officer an hour before it was scheduled to begin and with Strauss in his car on the way to the meeting. Anyway, Strauss and the Globe and Mail ran their story about the company.
This is just one example of the fractured relationship between business reporters and the public relations people who represent the companies that often hurts coverage because a lack of cooperation can often lead to incomplete information. Although many PR professionals have it right working relationships with business reporters and editors and try to provide them with accurate and timely information about their companies, an increase in adversarial encounters has harmed what consumers, employees and others know about major employers in their cities and cities. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that public companies hire PR staff because company news moves their stock price and they don’t want their stock price to go down.
For private companies, hiring PR representatives helps them get a higher price when selling to another company.
The battle between public relations and business journalism is being won of late with an increase in public relations personnel, making them more common than journalists covering the companies they represent. According to the US Census Bureau, there were 6.4 public relations professionals every journalist in the United States in 2018, compared to 1.9 PR staff for every journalist just twenty years earlier. And between 2008 and 2017, American newsrooms (newspapers, television and radio) cut 26,000 jobs, according to the Department of work
That disparity is likely to get worse: “Employment of public relations specialists is projected to grow 7 percent between 2019 and 2029, faster than the [4 percent] average [growth] for all occupations,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “overall employment of broadcast news reporters, correspondents, and analysts is projected to decline by 11 percent between 2019 and 2029.” Declining advertising revenue in radio, newspapers and television will negatively affect employment growth in these occupations.
The pay in public relations is also better than journalism, causing many journalists and editors to switch careers. According to the Pew Research Center, for every $1 in salary a PR professional makes, a journalist earns just 65 cents.
The result is that companies are increasingly hiding behind their public relations staff, ignoring requests for information and interviews from business journalists, or going on the offensive and trying to change the focus of a story or broadcast statements to journalists that do not respond to problems. addressed in a journalist’s questions. PR professionals are now recommending that the companies they represent stop inviting business reporters to events such as annual investor meetings or simply refuse to talk to them. In some cases, a PR person will lie or obfuscate the truth. And public relations strategies now target consumers and others directly by using social media such as Twitter to deliver company messages. They argue that the use of social media removes the filter of journalism, where journalists will only use the part of the message they consider important.
This is undoubtedly a journalist’s prerogative. But companies benefit from media coverage in multiple ways. By limiting interaction with corporate media, PR professionals are, in the long run, hurting the companies that sign their paychecks. In the end, the truth about the company often comes out.
Take the case of KQED reporter Lily Jamali, who spent years covering Pacific Gas and Electric Company, a San Francisco-based company that struggled to overcome the perception that it ignored its customers after its crews started wildfires that burned forests and people’s houses. When the company offered some of its stock as part of a settlement and its public relations people said it was a common strategy, Jamali reviewed past cases and said, “It became clear to me that it just didn’t it was true.” He also noted that the company was “reluctant” to have its executives speak to reporters. “The only opportunity to interview the CEO has been on the sidelines of regulatory or court hearings,” Jamali said, noting that those instances were limited during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the hearings went online.
Then there is a situation that many business journalists face. Write a negative article about a company and its PR professionals could cut off access to executives or their response to simple questions. In Virginia, the state’s largest utility, Dominion Virginia Power, declined to speak to Virginian-Pilot reporters. He issued a statement to the newspaper saying that has been the recipient of “inaccurate, biased and unfair news coverage and opinion pieces” from the newspaper.
Other PR employees will push interviews and exclusive stories in front of business reporters to get the reporter to drop another story that might portray their company in a negative light. When Fox Business News reporter Charles Gasparino was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, he received a memo from Merrill Lynch telling its brokers not to open accounts for less than $100,000, adding, “If you want to deal with poor people, you can get a good job at United Way.” When Gasparino contacted the company for its story about the memo, the PR person responded by saying, “What can we trade for you not to write this story? Do you want an interview with our CEO?” Gasparino refused the request. But others can be influenced.
It’s easy to see why the relationship is so strained. Many business journalists feel as if the public relations staff is an obstacle to their work. David Carr wrote in the New York Times: “Business reporters must overcome back-and-forth conversations with subordinates, written statements that say nothing, and that ever-increasing perennial: the ‘no comment.'” The modern CEO he lives behind a wall of communications operatives, many of whom are focused on obscuring rather than revealing.”
Carr was being polite with the word “slop”. PR professionals are increasingly using lies and false and misleading information in their communications. In 2015, University of South Carolina professor Shannon Bowen, who researches public relations ethics, wrote that a study of public relations personnel found that most of them admitted to lying in the media on a regular basis. “And we wonder why journalists don’t trust PR sources, rate their ethics lower than that of journalists, and look for other sources, more dirt or even simple confirmation of facts?” she wrote
Here’s an example of how this happens. Personal finance articles that appeared on CNBC’s website and in columns written by a Washington Post personal finance columnist quoted an “expert” in student loan refinancing. But the person quoted was a creation of the public relations staff of a student loan refinancing company. The “expert” had directed an email interviews with journalists but they did not exist.
Of course, business journalists often turn to PR professionals for help with stories. But given the examples here and many others that were not included, it is obvious that the relationship has been badly damaged and is hurting how companies are represented in the Media
Corporate communications staff also need to do a better job of training executives to understand that they have an important role to play in today’s society. This is harder than it sounds, considering that many executives have egos. “They are required to represent and communicate, but they are usually not trained or chosen primarily for these aspects,” Ansgar discovered. Zerfass and Markus Wiesenberg from the University of Leipzig and Dejan Verčič from the University of Ljubljana.
If you’re in PR or believe that PR staff provide a valuable service to businesses, don’t worry. Journalists also do a lot of damage when covering business and the economy: courting CEOs and adopting their vision over more reporting, ignoring good sources of data and story ideas, prioritizing Wall Street glamor over needs of Main Street information.
But that topic would be the subject of another essay, or a book like the one I’ve written.