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PRs and journalists – still a love-hate relationship?

28Oct Posted by Olivier Milland

PRs and journalists – still a love-hate relationship?

The divide between journalists and PR professionals continues to be a cause of friction. Regardless of the amount of data and knowledge we acquire, developments in technology or the innumerable channels we use to communicate with, nothing seems to fare better than good ol’ fashioned human relations. And as PR professionals, often working for external clients, our jobs depend on our ability to form strong long-term relationships with stakeholders and journalists.

Recently, I attended a PRMoment event: what journalists think about PR people? To little surprise the overarching message was: “not highly, but some are ok when they make my job easier”.

Daryl Wilcox, Chairman at DWPub presented results from a recent survey of journalists. One of the key findings was that journalists believe that PR professionals have little understanding of their needs, or indeed what makes great news. About half of journalists believe PRs do not understand what they need and close to 80% stated “lack of understanding of [the] publication and subject area” to be one of the most frustrating issues with PR pitches. Another finding from the survey showed that little has changed over the years and PRs are not improving. On the other hand, when PR-people do get it right, journalists are very happy.

Group Content Editor of the Independent newspaper, Chris Blackhurst, confirmed these findings with his list of bad and good PR-practices he’s experiencing. Bad practices included irrelevant pitches to the journalist; PR people with no idea about the topic they’re pitching about; no understanding of media’s working processes (i.e. calling in to pitch one hour before the press deadline);. But he also praised good PR people as being empathetic, honest and trusting.

So are PRs really that bad? Several studies show that the lack of understanding among PR professionals is wide ranging. A study, from 2010 by Real Wire, estimated that 1.7 billion irrelevant press releases were sent to UK and US journalists, alone, each year.

Still, Chris Blackhurst believed the number of pitch-generated stories to be very high. A 2006-study by researchers from Cardiff University, on the quality of British journalism, found that 60% of UK press articles and 34% of broadcast stories were PR-generated.  This, of course, validates the growing importance of the PR-profession, which continues to play a key role for companies and organisations that want to reach out to large audiences without having to pay large amounts on advertising. Similarly, journalists who are battling with limited resources and a seemingly infinite flow of news are becoming increasingly dependent on pre-packed news, of which many come from PR-pitches.

Meanwhile the PR-industry is booming. According to the Holmes Report’s 2014 World PR report, the industry has grown by 11% since 2013, employed over 80,000, and the PR-agency industry was worth $12.5bn (£7.8bn). Moreover, the ratio between journalists and PR-professionals has changed dramatically over the past two decades. In 1980, it was one PR person for two journalists. In 2010, the ratio had changed to four PRs to one journalist.

So competition for journalists’ time and attention is fierce. Some journalists can receive thousands of emails in one day. Mark Borkowski, founder of and reminiscent of a past era, underlined the importance that we understand this.  He called for smarter ways in the way we approach journalists, and in building a strong narrative for our clients that are news worthy and useful to the journalist we’re pitching to. That is when we become good PRs.  As Howard Jones, Senior PR Manager at EE pointed out, journalists “are also our clients”; not strictly in the sociological sense of it.

While the speakers at the PRMoment event gave some convincing arguments on how we should adapt, some PRs will continue their bad practices. A key reson for this, which became apparent throughout the event, is inexperience and ignorance. Most of the pitching is left to junior employees who pitch from a script, without necessarily having much knowledge on the subject, and therefore adding no real value to the journalist. The obvious solution to this is to - as we aim to do at Sermelo – is to ensure we all know our facts and also to include senior members of staff in the pitching process who have greater experience of the client, industry and target media. This sounds basic, but it would appear that this basic approach is too often missing from too many PR professionals.

So whilst the industry is growing, and competition is increasing, only the PR-professionals who are able to research and then build strong narratives around their clients’ are likely to succeed. Perhaps when we collectively succeed in this, appreciation for PR practitioners amongst journalists might increase.


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