Media Relationships: Spotlight intensifies over the role of press sources

As journalists move away from the use of anonymous sources and seek information elsewhere, pressure mounts for PR pros to stay in the loop

As journalists move away from the use of anonymous sources and seek information elsewhere, pressure mounts for PR pros to stay in the loop

When Newsweek retracted its story about US interrogators allegedly mishandling the Koran - based on information from an anonymous source - the media suffered another black eye. This came on the heels of CBS News' disputed story last year about President Bush's National Guard service. Both called into question the media's sourcing practices, particularly the use of anonymous sources.

But then came the unveiling of Deep Throat, reminding everyone that anonymous sources are not necessarily a bad thing, as many debated whether W. Mark Felt was a hero or traitor for his role in ending the Nixon presidency.

But all these instances have thrust what is usually an unseen relationship - that between reporter and source - into the spotlight. And on the record or off, it is a PR pro's job to be that source. But the scrutiny over anonymous informants, and the increasing ease with which journalists can find information, is putting that relationship under a great deal of pressure.

"Everything needs to be seen in the prism of time," says Dennis Bracy, now a senior counselor with Rockey Hill & Knowlton in Seattle and previously press secretary for the Watergate and Harrisburg Seven trials. "In this right-now, 24-7, 365-days-a-year environment, time is the thing that has changed the most in the relationship. And whether it's blogs or the internet or the all-news, all-the-time cable channels, intense pressure is being put upon us, and that has fundamentally changed relationships."

And this has not led to better journalism, says Bracy. Unverified news is prevalent, and rumors often rule the day, as the pressure to be first is stronger than ever for the media. This makes strong relationships between the media and their sources more important than ever, he adds.

"Taking time to digest the facts, and understanding the context, is essential for top-rate journalism," says Bracy. "But the pressure of time has loosened that discipline. And this makes our job more important. We're not shills selling some twisted form of reality. We're trying to develop an understanding, and that requires thoughtfulness and context."

And that also takes time. And that is what is often missing from many relationships between journalists and PR pros - not enough time is being given to nurture those relationships and build trust.

Smaller role for PR

While the media seem to be moving away from non-attributed sources, they're finding news in new and unconventional ways that threaten to reduce the importance of PR, says Peter Himler, president of the Publicity Club of New York and most recently chief media officer at Edelman.

Once upon a time, companies had more control over news about their companies. But thanks to "citizen journalists" and powerful search engines, anyone - reporters included - can now delve into any aspect of a company, wrest control of the news from it, and inevitably make PR less important, suggests Himler.

"The best PR people can make complex messages stick and help clients take obtuse stories to their constituencies so they can understand them," says Himler. "There has always been healthy disdain by the media for PR. But it's gone beyond that.

So PR people need to demonstrate that they are a trusted source of news and information, and take time to repair some of the tattered bridges that exist right now. Trust is key."

Relationships between the media and PR people, whether they're representing athletes or politicians, seem more polarized these days, adds Jeff Weir, worldwide PR director at National Semiconductor in Santa Clara, CA. A former Washington, DC, reporter and press secretary to Sen. John Seymour (R-CA), Weir says reporters are getting bombarded with pitches more than ever before, so many pitches that they are distancing themselves from PR people.

"The way to counter that is to take the time to develop personal relationships so they are willing to listen to me," says Weir. "Trust is critical to a PR person, and it's critical to the reporter. If that trust exists, I'll give them the off-the-record conversation on background so they can know the facts."

Building relationships

Not everyone's assessment of the relationships between PR and the media is as dire.

Tim Doke, who has worked for American Airlines and Dell and is now VP of corporate communications for Freescale Semiconductor in Austin, TX, says relationships have not changed dramatically. Smart journalists recognize that it is in their interest to have a close and collaborative relationship with PR people, as they can provide information that is sometimes hard to get.

And while the pressures of time are straining the relationship, as Bracy says, time is also needed to develop relationships, says Doke. And that is what has enabled Doke to work behind the scenes as an anonymous source with the media, to get accurate information to reporters working on stories with incorrect information.

"From a business perspective, the anonymous source is an incredibly valuable tool that ultimately serves investors, employees, and other key constituencies by ensuring that inaccurate information about an important deal does not distort the real story," says Doke.

But that's not a bond of trust PR people can develop overnight, and again it falls to the ability to develop that relationship. Many PR people mistake e-mail as an actual relationship, says Sam Singer, president of Singer Associates in San Francisco. The over-reliance on e-mail, VNRs, and prepackaged news has harmed relationships.

"Many PR agencies believe that as long as you get a good picture and a sound bite, then you have a story and a relationship," says Singer. "But that's not the case. There are too many prepackaged stories and too many e-mails and not enough relationship building or understanding of the issues."

"I tell new people who join us, and others, that we can't let changing technologies move us away from the critical fact this is a relationship business," adds Tom Mattia, VP of global communications at EDS in Plano, TX. "That takes time and trust."

And that time and trust is what enables PR people to have those off-the-record conversations that put issues in context for the media. Not only is it in the interest of the media to develop those relationships, it benefits the company, as well. A faceless corporation that communicates via e-mail and VNRs is a much bigger target for journalists than one that reaches out with a handshake rather than an e-mail, says Mattia. A trusting relationship with a reporter can go a long way toward fair treatment in the press.

PR pros need to bring perspective and context in order to be that bridge between the reporter and the client, says Bracy, or they're not doing their job. It takes a higher degree of sophistication, with an understanding of not just the message, but also the business. That is how PR people prove their value to both their company and the media, and that is what leads journalists to develop relationships in the first place.

Sallie Gaines, an SVP with Hill &Knowlton in Chicago, also hasn't seen a huge change in relationships. For her, the big question is, what does the PR person know? Some PR people offer little value to reporters because they have no access to senior management and, thus, nothing to say beyond what's in the press release.

But those professionals who are part of the decision-making process and have the trust of senior management are the ones that reporters will seek out and attempt to cultivate relationships with.

"Journalists and PR people are both interested in accuracy and truth," adds Gaines. "But we might define those differently."

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