Industry wary of 'churnalism' site

Practitioners hit out at website that reveals how much of a press release is cut and pasted.

Senior PR professionals have said a new website that exposes journalists recycling press releases is threatening to undermine the PR profession.

Launched last week by the Media Standards Trust, Churnalism.com invites people to paste press releases on to the site and compare the copy with more than three million articles published by national newspaper websites, the BBC or Sky News since 2008.

The site then offers a percentage score indicating how much of the release was copied and pasted by journalists.

According to the trust, the site was inspired by Nick Davies' book Flat Earth News, which coined the term 'churnalism' and suggested that PR material now finds its way into 54 per cent of news.

But senior PROs rebutted any suggestion that PR is destroying good journalism and argued that the new site undermined the work of good PR practitioners.

Alan Twigg, MD at Seventy Seven PR, said: 'This site is making it sound like PROs getting coverage is a doddle and that PROs are taking over the media. If only it was that easy. Just try to sell in every day and build relationships with journalists over months and years.

'I don't like people suggesting there are not any responsible journalists talking to responsible and respectable PROs working for responsible and respectable brands.'

Similarly, Stuart Skinner, associate director, PHA Media, insisted 'the news is not a product of collusion between shady PROs and lazy journalists'.

Other PR professionals suggested the site would produce a call to action for PROs to be more accurate when writing press releases.

'Quality PROs will triplecheck their facts before releasing publicly,' said Gareth Thomas, director, Brands2Life.

Richard Brett, director at Shine, said: 'This means PR practitioners need to, now more than ever, ensure that stories are accurate and true.'

But other top PROs were unfazed by the new site.

'I'm not sure why anyone would want to go to the time and effort of producing a website to prove something that no-one really cares about,' said Mark Stringer, founder of Pretty Green.

'The fact is that good PROs know what journalists want and, in the main, write good press releases to help provide content for them.'

3m - Published articles cross-referenced by the site*

89 - Percentage of a press release from Asda apparently cut and pasted into a story appearing on Mail Online*

20 - Percentage threshold before the site will suggest the article may be 'churn'*

54 - Percentage of PR material that finds its way into news stories, according to Flat Earth News by Nick Davies

* Source: Media Standards Trust

HOW I SEE IT

Two respected PR figures offer an insight into the relationship between PROs and journalists

Stuart Skinner, Associate director, PHA Media

So, Churnalism.com has exposed the power of our profession. Great story. And credit to the PRO who secured blanket coverage for a previously anonymous website.

Can we assume this, like all the others, is a PR-led story taken almost verbatim from a press release containing scarcely a modicum of truth? That would be a slippery slope. Yes, some stories are contrived and some press releases rehashed for publication, but the news is not a product of collusion between shady PROs and lazy journalists.

In fact, journalists are more switched on to spin than ever before.

A successful sell-in requires more than a quick email with a shocking subject bar; subtle argument, relevance and third-party endorsement all count.

The continual challenge for PROs is to channel the tone and carve the content perfectly for each media target.

If you are successful, you might even see some of your words in print. Now where is the harm in that?

Alan Edwards, CEO, Outside Organisation

There has always been a symbiotic relationship between journalism and PR, hence the amount of former journalists progressing in the PR world.

The roll call of poacher-turned-gamekeeper is impressive, ranging from Alastair Campbell and Paddy Harveson, to our very own Neil Wallis.

The phrase 'churnalism' is fun and catchy, but in truth the relationship between journalists and PR in the literal sense is long established. It is just that hacks used to refer to them as contacts, as opposed to publicists.

One reason is that plenty of corporate PROs were just glorified PAs.

It is also worth taking into account that the PR industry is relatively new, but in most instances is as a much needed institution, meaning that the relationship between PR and journalism is still finding its natural level.

Personally, I find it very rare that a journalist would cut and paste a press release.

In my experience, the great majority of writers are proud of the history and importance of journalism and are keen to uphold standards.

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