Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The PRIA’s debate tonight descended into hilarity as both sides - journalists and PR operatives - launched ridiculously loaded barbs at opposing camps. The topic ‘That PR and journalism are two sides of the same coin’ languished unattended as team members went for laughs instead of coherence or relevance. The only thing missing was a backbencher’s mocking dial amid the routine catcalling inside the House of Representatives.

It’s a debate we need to have. Health warnings on food are contained in dietary information printed on the side of the pack. Cigarette packets are now mostly taken up with pictures of illness. But news stories we read daily may - or may not - be sourced entirely - or largely - from media releases put out by PR operatives.

The evening started auspiciously with a 30-minute run-down of the state of research by Prof Jim Macnamara from UTS. Studies from the US go back to 1930, when researchers pointed to “information processing” in news. In Australia studies started in 1993, when Rod Tiffen found that 18 per cent of newspapers contained material sourced from PR feed.

1993 was also the year of Macnamara’s own first study. He sourced 800 media releases from PRIA members and found that this translated into 2500 stories. Of the stories, 38 per cent were wholly or substantially based on the PR material. In trade publications, he found, 70 per cent of the content is “PR supplied”.

More recently, a Cardiff University study found that 60 per cent of news was “entirely wire service copy”. Only 12 per cent of news was “independently researched and written”. A Washington University study found that 94 per cent of editors admitted using PR. Amanda Millar at UTS in 2008 uncovered what Macnamara called “close relationships” between journalists and PR operatives and he discussed what he called the “third person effect”. Journalists reclassify people over time so that they become “industry spokespeople” not PR workers. Along with this “acculturation” there remains the PR industry “out there that they don’t deal with”.

The PR industry thus becomes the ‘third person’ in the relationship between the journalist and the PR operative who they have come to trust. Such journalists, says Macnamara, “don’t deal with PR as an industry”.

But Macnamara warned the audience not to generalise and to “look within each sector”. Not all sectors of the media are the same, as the news story published in The Australian on Monday attests. The journalist’s source for the story was Macnamara.

Macnamara said the data showed 30-80 per cent of media content was sourced from, or significantly influenced by, PR practitioners, depending on the outlet, with estimates of 40-75 per cent common.


Using them most heavily were smaller outlets such as suburban and rural newspapers, some types of magazines, trade press and specialist publications.

The heaviest users of all were travel magazines, which in some cases were overwhelmingly dominated by handouts published with barely a word changed.

As to the debate itself? A few quotes taken out of context must suffice as the level of coherence was so dodgy that it was difficult to hear more than one sentence at a time. Speakers harped on in a barely coherent manner or vociferated explosively in their endless quest for audience approval.

Lukas “The Rising Star” Picton - for the Negative - for example said that “The objective of PR is to manipulate the public” (loud jeers). Public relations “should be renamed public manipulation” (more jeers).

Sophia Russell, for the Affirmative, noted that PR operatives and journalists often do the same degrees. She seemed to think that the debate was whether one side or the other was to blame for the poor public perception of both. “We’re both storytellers,” she went on, who try to deliver the same things to the public. “It’s all about talkability.”

But that didn’t get a big enough laugh so she had to up the ante. “Content can come straight from the PR person’s laptop.” More jeers, predictably, followed this small bomb launched into the boozy confines of The Laugh Garage.

Clint Dreiberg, for the Negative, countered by telling the majority of the audience that they did not belong to “a real profession”. PR is contemptible, he opined. “It’s not a real job.”

They laughed and they jeered and I left early due to a combination of a sneezing fit and the fact that my parking garage closed its doors at 9pm. So I missed the denouement and I missed an opportunity to ‘network’. “This networking event aims to reveal an insight into ‘if’ and ‘how’ these industries can harmoniously work together,” ran the email I received from the Public Relations Institute of Australia on registering for the event. But the tenor of debate made me regret the 70 dollars. And the seriousness of the issue made me regret even more the lack of discipline and accountability displayed by those involved.

A missed opportunity, I thought.

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