This is an excerpt from “The Future of Business Journalism: Why It Matters to Wall Street and Main Street” by Quinnipiac University School of Communications Dean Chris Roush.
When Toronto Globe and Mail reporter Marina Strauss began reporting in October 2016 on strategy changes at the Tim Hortons restaurant chain, she sought interviews with the company’s chief executive and other management. The public relations staff told her that interviews would take place at the end of November. However, after interviewing a new executive and several franchise owners, Strauss was denied any further interviews by the company’s public relations staff, who were annoyed by her questioning the executive’s age and family. 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 with its head of store operations an hour before it was scheduled to start and with Strauss in her car on the way to the meeting. However, Strauss and the Globe and Mail published her story about the company.
This is just one example of the broken relationship between business journalists and public relations people representing businesses that 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 efforts to provide them with accurate and timely information about their companies, an increase in adversarial meetings has damaged what consumers, employees and others know about important employers in cities theirs and the cities. And it’s increasingly clear that public companies hire public relations staff because company news moves their stock price, and they don’t want their stock price to go down.
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 is being won recently by an increase in public relations staff, making them more common than journalists covering the companies they represent. According to the US Census Bureau, there were 6.4 public relations professionals per every journalist in the United States in 2018, up from 1.9 public relations workers for every journalist just twenty years ago. And between 2008 and 2017, American newsrooms—newspapers, television stations and radio stations—cut 26,000 jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Work.
This disparity is likely to worsen – “employment of public relations professionals is projected to grow 7 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than [4 percent] average [growth] for all occupations,” according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Total employment of broadcast news reporters, correspondents and analysts is projected to decline 11 percent from 2019 to 2029,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The decrease in income from advertising in radio, newspapers and television will negatively affect the growth of employment for these professions.
The pay in public relations is also better than journalism, causing many reporters and editors to switch careers. According to the Pew Research Center, for every $1 in salary made by a public relations professional, a journalist earns only 65 cents.
The result is that companies are increasingly hiding behind their public relations staff, ignoring requests from business journalists for information and interviews, or going on the offensive and trying to change the focus of a story or issuing statements for journalists who do not respond to issues. addressed to a journalist’s questions. Public relations professionals are now recommending that the companies they represent stop inviting business journalists to events such as annual investor meetings or simply refuse to speak with them. In some cases, a public relations person will lie or obscure the truth. And public relations strategies now go directly to consumers and others using social media like Twitter to deliver company messages. They argue that the use of social media eliminates the filter of journalism, where journalists will only use the part of the message that they believe is important.
To be sure, this is a journalist’s prerogative. But companies benefit in many ways from media coverage. By limiting interaction with the business news media, public relations professionals, in the long run, hurt the companies that sign their paychecks. In the end, the truth about the company often comes out.
Take KQED reporter Lily Jamali, who spent years covering Pacific Gas and Electric Company, a San Francisco-based company that struggled to overcome perceptions that it was ignoring its customers after its equipment sparked wildfires and people’s homes. When the company offered some of its stock as part of a deal and its public relations people said it was a common strategy, Jamali reviewed past cases and said, “It became clear to me that this just wasn’t right. really.” She 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 occasions were limited during the COVID-19 pandemic, when hearings were held online.
Then there is a situation that many business journalists face. Write a negative article about a business and its public relations people may cut off access to executives or its response to simple questions. In Virginia, the state’s largest utility, Dominion Virginia Power, declined to speak to reporters from The Virginian-Pilot. She released a statement to the newspaper saying that she has been the recipient of “inaccurate, biased and unfair news coverage and opinion pieces” from the paper.
Other public relations employees will vary interviews and exclusive stories in front of business reporters to force 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 Merrill Lynch memo 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 about his story about the memo, the PR person responded by saying, “What can we trade you for not writing this story? Would you like an interview with our CEO?” Gasparino refused the request. But others may be affected.
It’s easy to see why the relationship is so strained. Many business journalists feel as if their public relations staff is a hindrance to their jobs. David Carr wrote in the New York Times: “Business reporters have to wade their way past background conversations with addicts, written statements that say nothing, and the ever-increasingly bold one: ‘no comment.’ The modern chief executive lives behind a wall of communications operatives, many of whom burst onto the slopes that aim to obscure rather than reveal.”
Carr was kind to 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 researches public relations ethics, wrote that a study of public relations workers found that most of them admitted to lying media on a regular basis. “And we wonder why journalists don’t trust PR sources, rate their ethics lower than that of journalists, and don’t go around digging for other sources, more dirt, or even simple confirmation of the 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 done e-mail interview with journalists but it did not exist.
To be sure, business journalists often turn to public relations professionals for help with stories. But given the examples here and many others not included, it’s clear that the relationship is severely damaged and hurts the way businesses are portrayed in Media.
Corporate communications staff also need to do a better job of training 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 asked to represent and communicate, but are usually neither trained nor selected primarily for these aspects,” Ansgar revealed. Zerfass and Markus Wiesenberg from the University of Leipzig and Dejan Verčič from the University of Ljubljana.
If you are in public relations or believe that public relations employees provide a valuable service to companies, don’t worry. Journalists also make a lot of mistakes when covering business and the economy: pulling in CEOs and adopting their views instead of more reporting, overlooking good sources of data and story ideas, prioritizing the glamor of Wall Street over the needs of Main Street information.
But that topic would be the stuff of another essay—or a book like the one I’ve written.