Can PR and business journalists mend their broken relationship?

This is an excerpt from The Future of Business Journalism: Why It Matters to Wall Street and Main Street by Quinnipiac 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 other management. Public relations officers told her that interviews will take place at the end of November. After interviewing a junior executive and some franchise owners, however, Strauss was denied further interviews by the company’s public relations staff, who were upset by her questions about the executive’s age and family. The PR people told the paper that personal information was not allowed to be included in the story, according to Duncan Hood, editor of the paper’s Report on Business magazine.

Tim Hortons canceled all further interviews, including one with the store’s operations manager an hour before the scheduled start and with Strauss in her car en route to the meeting. Strauss and the Globe and Mail published their story about the company anyway.

This is just one example of the broken relationship between business journalists and the public relations people who represent the business, which often hurts coverage because a lack of cooperation can often lead to incomplete information. While many PR professionals have good ones working relationships with business reporters and editors and trying to provide them with accurate and timely information about their companies, the increase in adversarial meetings harms what consumers, employees and others know about important employers in their cities and cities. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that public companies hire public relations people because company news drives their stock price, and they don’t want their stock price to fall.

For private companies, hiring public relations representatives helps them get a higher price when selling to another company.

The battle between PR and business journalism has recently been won by the rise of public relations officers, making them more common than reporters covering the companies they represent. According to the US Census Bureau, there are 6.4 public relations professionals per every journalist in the United States in 2018, compared to 1.9 public relations workers for every journalist just twenty years earlier. And between 2008 and 2017, U.S. newsrooms—newspapers, television stations and radio stations—cut 26,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

This disparity is likely to worsen — employment of public relations professionals is expected to grow 7 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than [4 percent] average [growth] for all occupations,” according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Total employment of reporters, correspondents and news analysts is projected to decline 11 percent from 2019 to 2029,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Declines in radio, newspaper and television advertising revenue will have a negative impact on employment growth for these occupations.

Pay in public relations is also better than journalism, prompting many reporters and editors to switch careers. According to the Pew Research Center, for every $1 a public relations professional earns, a journalist makes just 65 cents.

The result is that companies increasingly hide behind their public relations staff, ignore business reporters’ requests for information and interviews, or go on the offensive and try to change the focus of a story or issue statements to reporters that don’t answer questions addressed in reporter questions. Public relations professionals are now recommending that the companies they represent stop inviting business reporters to events like annual investor meetings, or simply refuse to talk to them. In some cases, the PR person will lie or obfuscate the truth. And public relations strategies now go directly to consumers and others by using social media such as Twitter to deliver company messages. They argue that the use of social media eliminates the filter of journalism, where reporters will only use the part of the message they think is important.

Of course, that’s the reporter’s prerogative. But companies benefit in many ways from media coverage. By limiting interaction with the media for business news, public relations professionals are hurting the companies that sign their payrolls in the long run. After all, 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 utility struggling to overcome a perception that it was neglecting its customers after its equipment caused wildfires that burned forests and people’s homes. 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 this is simply not true.” She also noted , that the company “doesn’t want” its executives to talk to reporters. “The only opportunity to interview the CEO was on the sidelines of regulatory or judicial hearings,” Jamali said, noting that those instances were limited during the COVID-19 pandemic when hearings were online.

Then there is a situation that many business journalists face. Write a negative article about a business and its public relations people may withhold access to executives or its answers to simple questions. In Virginia, the state’s largest utility, Dominion Virginia Power, declined to speak with reporters from the Virginian-Pilot. He issued a statement to the paper saying that was the recipient of “inaccurate, biased and dishonest news and opinion” from the newspaper.

Other public relations officers will release exclusive interviews and stories to business reporters to get the journalist to drop another story that might paint 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 nice job at United Way.” When Gasparino contacted the company for his story about the memo, the PR person responded, saying: “What can we trade you for not writing this story? Would you like an interview with our CEO?” Gasparino declined the request. But others can be influenced.

It’s easy to see why the relationship is so strained. Many business journalists feel as if public relations officers are getting in the way of their work. David Carr wrote in the New York Times: “Business reporters have to wade through background conversations with subordinates, written statements that say nothing, and that increasingly persistent perennial: ‘no comment.’ The modern CEO lives behind a wall of communications operatives, many of whom draw on slop designed to obfuscate, not reveal.

Carr was polite with the word “slop.” Public relations professionals are increasingly using lies and false and misleading information in their communications. In 2015, University of South Carolina professor Shannon Bowen, who studies public relations ethics, wrote that a survey of public relations officers found that a majority of them admitted to lying media regularly. “And we wonder why journalists do not trust PR sources, rate their ethics lower than that of journalists, and go around digging for other sources, more dirt or even just confirmation of facts?” she wrote.

Here is an example of how this is done. Personal finance articles that appeared on CNBC’s website and in columns written by a Washington Post personal finance columnist cited an “expert” on student loan refinancing. But the person cited is the work of the public relations team of a student loan refinancing company. The “expert” had conducted an email interviews with journalists, but it did not exist.

Of course, business reporters often turn to public relations professionals for help with stories. But given the examples here and many others not included, it is clear that the relationship is seriously damaged and harming the way the business is represented in Media.

Corporate communications staff also need to do a better job of educating executives to understand that they play an important role in today’s society. This is harder than it sounds, given that many executives have egos. “They are required to represent and communicate, but they are usually neither trained nor primarily selected for these aspects,” Ansgar found Zerfas and Markus Wiesenberg from the University of Leipzig and Dejan Vercic from the University of Ljubljana.

If you’re in public relations or think that public relations officers provide a valuable service to companies, don’t worry. Journalists also make many mistakes when covering business and the economy: courting CEOs and taking their point of view over more reporting, ignoring good sources of data and story ideas, prioritizing the glamor of Wall Street over the informational needs of Main Street.

But that topic would be part of another essay—or a book like the one I’ve written.

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