The Press and Public Relations: An Exploratory Study of Editors’ Perceptions of Public Relations Specialists

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Lee Bollinger

[WJMCR 3:3 June 2000]

Sections: 

Abstract|Findings|Significance|Conclusion


Abstract

The relationship of editor/reporter with a public relations representative can be tenuous, at best, when the latter cannot supply the former with certain information. This same relationship, at other times, can be highly rewarding when the two parties work together in getting news out to the public. One editor tells the story of a public relations representative at a four-year college coming to the editor with news of grade tampering. The public relations representative wanted to inform the editor before it hits the streets. The editor appreciates the early release and gets the details in time for the afternoon deadline. “That’s a positive public relations professional,” the editor says. “Now, let me tell you about the negative one.”

Overall research question

This article is about journalists’ (editors and reporters) positive and negative perceptions of public relations professionals (note: “specialists,” “practitioners,” “representatives” all are used interchangeably). The overall research question is why is there an on-going, yet sometimes rocky, relationship of these two career specialists who must work-closely at times-toward the same news goal. In order to explore answers to the question, the researcher traveled around the state of South Carolina interviewing various newspaper editors and reporters at dailies about the key focus of the study, perceptions. This paper offers for public relations/media relations specialists insight about journalists’ complaints of the PR/MR field; for journalists, the results of the study offers insight about why some journalists do not offer negative perceptions of these professionals. The researcher also offers a description of a theory that can conceptually advance understanding of the relationship that the PR/MR representative must promote with the press. Also included is a rationale for the purposeful sampling, a review of the literature, the responses of the population in the sample, and theoretical concerns, resultant propositions from the study, and recommendations about future studies.

Other research questions

When this study began, the planning of initial questions helped direct the interviews of the various editors and reporters around the state of South Carolina, the area of this study. These initial questions were formulated after conducting interviews with the four writers and the director in the Department of Media Relations at the University of South Carolina. The department’s staff served as a focus group for the researcher. Information acquired from the focus group then alerted the researcher to the overall research question, the “why” of the “rocky relationship” that exists between the press and public relations or media relations officials.

After conducting the first two interviews of journalists out of the 16 in the study, the researcher formulated more specific questions:

Q1How do journalists define public relations/media relations practitioners?
Q2What do journalists really think of public relations and media relations professionals?
Q3Does familiarity with the PR/MR representative with an organization effect overall perception of the PR/MR person and profession?
Q4What do editors want of the public relations or media relations representative, whether in press releases or phone calls.

Sample selection

One cannot study everyone everywhere doing everything, so one must limit the parameters of a study, according to Maxwell, who states that Miles and Huberman argued that when “we sample people, we are, at the same time, sampling settings, events and processes.”1 Maxwell states that qualitative research is often purposeful sampling, and criterion-based selection, and selecting the individuals in the sample is the most important consideration in sampling decision.There are 16 daily newspapers in the state. The selection of the papers, explained shortly, brought the total newspapers sampled to 12 (with 13 editors and three reporters-two reporters at one daily and one reporter now in charge of university relations). The choice of editor to interview was random. The researcher had to rely on each newspaper’s staff to connect her with either the editor, managing editor or business editor who was responsible for the education beat (one exception was one business editor also responsible for education). In a few cases, the editor pointed the researcher toward a reporter to also interview.

Choosing the education beat would put the researcher in touch with editors and/or reporters who were familiar with media relations offices in university/college settings, which was important. Prior to conducting the interviews, a four-month on-site case study was completed in the Office of Media Relations at the University of South Carolina. During the term of the case study, the researcher was able to study independently all materials written by the department’s five writers and all published pieces collected by the department’s clipping service as well as conduct personal interviews with all writers and the director of the department about press relations.

In all interviews at the various newspaper sites, editors and reporters in the sample had had experience in working with various public relations or media relations representatives. Lastly, the researcher knew none of the editors and reporters interviewed before the study began.

Those editors and reporters interviewed included four females and 12 males; ages ranged from 25-50; experience ranged from four to 33 years in the newspaper field; and circulation size ranged from 7,000 to 140,000 daily.

All interviews were taped with permission from interviewees. The interviewer personally transcribed all tapes (which lasted 40 minutes to one hour each) and copies of the transcripts were sent to the subjects to verify information. With a concern for ethics, the researcher promised in writing that no publication of the transcript would be allowed without express written permission from the interviewee and that the transcribed material (omitting their names) would only be used for academic purposes. Half of the subjects receiving transcripts sent marginal notes back to the interviewer; one included a letter about the experience. In all cases, the meetings with subjects were positive ones.

Literature Review

Media/Public Relations, perceptions and news values

The public relations practitioner produces and reproduces knowledge, manipulates it, and retrieves it when necessary; the same is true of the media relations writer. Heath explains that public relations professionals-and the MR writer viewed as a public relations professional-are “influential rhetors” (i.e., speakers) in that they “design, place, and repeat messages in behalf of sponsors on an array of topics that shape views” of government, charitable organizations, institutions of public education, products and consumerism, capitalism, labor, health, and leisure; “they write, speak and use visual images to discuss topics and take stances on public policies at local, state and federal levels; and they create images and publicize business and special interest events.”3

Perceptions of editors and public relations practitioners about each other were studied by Sallot, Steinfatt and Salwen. In particular, the authors looked at the topics of news values, fairness, promptness and accuracy/completeness and compared the opinions of the two groups about the topics. What they found was a difference in the perception of journalists about public relations practitioners. The former saw “little similarity between their news values and their perceptions of practitioners’ [news] values [but] practitioners perceived a modest relationship between their news values and those of journalists.”4 Interestingly, however, both groups perceived the influence that public relations has on topics making the news.5

Walters, Walters & Starr point out that researchers have long recognized the symbiotic relationship between the public relations practitioner and the journalist. They point to the various names given to the relationship: Afact by triangulation, Ainformation transfer, Ainformation subsidy, and Ainformation triangle as examples of this recognition.6 (The notion of triangle-a three-way model that includes the parties and the public-is closer to Woodward’s triadic communication model, which is discussed in more detail below.) Finally, Walters et al. point out what Herbert Gans called the relationship-more like a dance:

To Herbert Gans the relationship can be likened to a dance, “for sources seek access to journalists and journalists seek access to sources. Although it takes two to tango,” Gans said, “either can lead, but more often than not, sources do the leading.”7

Significance of other studies

Media relations departments are often an offshoot of public relations departments, and researchers largely have ignored the MR function. Instead, research reflects various studies with public relations agents and the press. Dissertations about public relations writers include Carroll’s dissertation that included a study of attitudes of daily newspaper education writers toward public relations practitioners in higher education.8 It primarily focuses on the perception of news values (especially accuracy) both by practitioners and journalists. Ratcliff’s dissertation focuses on a case study of how metropolitan newspapers cover public research universities and the four spheres of expectations (self, organizational, professional and community) on news coverage that interests journalists.9 Van Slyke’s dissertation is a report on a study of how public information officers from various Louisiana state agencies influence media coverage of state government. The researcher found that such officers disseminate information to journalists in an attempt to influence the agenda of government activity and issues reported to the public in the media.10

In the study of public information officers, Van Slyke questioned them on topics of immediacy (timeliness of news breaking at the university), readers’ interests, personal values of editors, the dependent need of journalist and source, and the economic value of disseminating news to journalists and thereby saving them valuable time and energy in their own research. Most of the information supplied to newspapers by state/public information officers was rejected by journalists for lack of newsworthiness defined by journalists as “having impact.”11

Lastly, in another study of attitudes toward public relations professionals by media personnel, reported in a Master’s thesis of Biggar’s, the researcher found that there was a preponderance of negative views among editors toward people in public relations. The researcher found that editors disagree with the notion that a partnership between public relations practitioners and journalists exists.12Journalists and PR/MR representatives, however, do not view the “partnership” concept, the same way.

How then are opinions formed? Certainly knowledge is acquired over time and comes to the individual in various ways. Berger’s and Luckmann’s argument was that it is within a community (culture) that knowledge is produced, reproduced and collected, stored, augmented, manipulated and retrieved by its members.13

Woodward’s triadic model suggests that the combination of environment, media and individual is both a sociological and interactional event for the transfer of information.14 It is this model that best describes or draws attention to the reliance of the public relations practitioner and the media relations writer on the media. However, adding another dimension to Woodward?s triangle, the assertion in the current study is that the print media do more than act as intermediary or channels in attracting external attention for an organization. It is as accomplice that social impact takes place. The term, accomplice (defined as an ally and/or abettor), pertains to a role the media play knowingly and/or unknowingly wherein the media do not merely use information given as text but, with such information, present the very image perpetrated by the public relations practitioner for purposes of influencing a public. Interestingly, the media often claim that they merely present news the public wants, suggesting again, an accomplice relationship.

Do the media do more? The notion that the media construct a reality for us was elaborated upon by Gaye Tuchman in his book, Making News: A Study in the Construction of Reality.15 While Tuchman attributed such construction to the way in which news is presented to us, social constructionists like Berger and Luckmann postulated a concept of a socially constructed reality. This is a reality wherein individuals view the social world through signs and symbols and through their behaviors. The two dimensions of social reality for the social constructionists are that of an objective world (the physical world) and a subjective world (the personal world or Lewin’s social space).

Anderson takes issue with social constructionists who assert that we cannot make assumptions about an objective reality because, she argues, this suggests that one account of reality is of no more intrinsic value than another. It’s one thing to make an assumption about a tiger (our objective reality) and quite another to make an assumption about global warming16 (in our objective reality also). Certainly, the former would have fewer contending views than the latter, Anderson asserts. The media are as complex in their handling of news as the complexity of views about global warming. Because there are so many variables that can influence the news (publishers, editors and writers and phenomena like news formats, advertising, reader pressures, government), journalistic accounts, Anderson argues, are inevitably selective. (Journalists interviewed would readily state that selectivity depends on local connection or local news impact.) This, she quickly points out, does not make the information published not true. It means, rather, that the perceptions offered in the news media will differ over time and she claims culture (which, for purposes of this research, includes space).17 Perception, then, is intrinsically linked with communication within our social worlds.

All communication is the transmission of what Moscovici calls, social representation. What someone calls beautiful, another may call trifling. A mere word brings up the meaning that does not describe the thing itself but rather the belief about that thing. In this study, meanings are discussed with journalists; e.g., reporters/editors are asked to describe public relations/media relations professionals they have known or currently know, what the professionals want from them (the journalists), and what their overall assessment (perception) is about public relations/media relations professionals.

We can study social representation, according to Moscovici, because we can analyze the effects of information on the individual/society. The theory of social representation (thoughts) and interpersonal communication theory both offer us views of communication and everyday thinking. It is not a good idea to try to separate these two elements (thought and communication), for, as Moscovici argues, if one does, it devalues genuine significance. The utility of social representation theory (SR), according to Moscovici, is that social representations concern the content of everyday thinking and the stock of ideas that gives coherence to our religious beliefs, political ideas and the connections we create as spontaneously as we breathe. It is through representations that we can classify, compare and objectify people and objects around us. Representations also offer prescriptions for us to follow. More specifically, he writes:

Social representations, like scientific theories, religions or mythologies, are the representations of something or of someone. They have a specific content-specific implying, moreover, that it differs from one sphere or one society to another. However, these processes are significant only insofar as they reveal the birth of such a content and its variations.18

Moscovici argues that how we think and what we think are intrinsically and intricately linked. He offers that the significance here is that these social representations become capable of influencing the behavior of the individual participant in a society. So a journalist’s acceptance of PR/MR practitioners may then be linked to what they think in general about these practitioners, which can ultimately affect press coverage or even press attention. In the meantime, the persuasion process depends on social representations for its goal-change. Like the effects of persuasion, we cannot actually see social representations. If we think in terms of groups of people who must interact on an on-going basis – which can include departments of large corporations and for purposes of this study does include reporters/editors and MR writers-we can assume they bring with them social representations (images and concepts) derived throughout life. Communication as a process depends on cognizance of these images and concepts in order to accomplish a goal. In the area of persuasion and communication, theorists would argue that the main task is to study these elements only as needed in order to bring about some change in the target audience/receiver.

Social impact theory rests in the notion that people affect each other. “As social animals, we are drawn by the attractiveness of others and aroused by their mere presence, stimulated by their activity and embarrassed by their attention.”19 In short, we “impact” each other; the term was coined by Latan�, who argues:

By social impact, I mean any of the great variety of changes in physiological states and subjective feelings, motives and motions, cognitions and beliefs, values and behavior that occur in an individual, human or animal, as a result of the real, implied or imagined presence or actions of other individuals.20

Latan�’s Dynamic social impact theory is influenced by Moscovici’s social representation theory in that DSI theory attempts to identify the ingredients of social representations. Huguet and Latan� suggest that we can identify spatial clusters of bundled beliefs, attitudes and practices emerging from dynamic social impact as social representations.21 Latan� offers that much of his work in DSI theory is derived from the work of Kurt Lewin who divided social reality into three fields: (1) life space or physical space (a surrounding environment), (2) social space (boundary), and (3) psychological space (physical and life space are aware of each other).22

Figure 1.

Latan� points out that early Lewinian theorists cared only for the life space, which was not to be confused with geographic environment of physical stimuli. Lewin’s psychological space could not be determined by a single axiom for it may be smaller than physical distance as when travel is easy or pleasurable or it may be larger as when travel is unfamiliar or frightening.23 We are influenced by what is around us, from the social world, which in turn affects our mental representations of the physical world-Moscovici’s social representations.

According to Latan�, when a social source acts upon a target individual, the amount of impact (the influence) experienced by the target should be a multiplicative function of the strength, S, the Immediacy, I and N, the number, N, of sources present. Latan� explains that he originally thought of strength as the salience, power, importance or intensity of a given source to the target; by immediacy, he meant closeness in space or time and absence of intervening barriers or filters; by number, he meant the number of people there are in the force field.24

He uses the metaphor of the light from a light bulb falling on a surface and explains that the amount of light is a multiplicative function of the wattage or intensity of the light bulbs shining on the surface, closeness to the surface and the number of bulbs, so the impact of the bulb depends on the multiplicative function of SIN. He likens this impact to the impact experienced by an individual and predicted that the greatest impact on an individual will depend on the higher the status, the more immediate the influence and the greater the number of other people affecting him/her.

As the amount of light falling on a surface is a multiplicative function of the wattage or intensity of the light bulbs shining on the surface, their closeness to the surface, and the number of bulbs, so the impact experienced by an individual is a multiplicative function of the strength, immediacy, and number of people affecting him or her.25

Dynamic Social Impact, then, requires three ingredients (strength, number and immediacy) in order for impact to take place. More than what Moscovici suggests (e.g., how we think and what we think), Latan� looks for impact when everything is in place. For purposes of this study, the dimension of number can be thought of as objects or contacts rather than people, which was Latan�’s original intention. We can graphically see the differences in Social Representation and DSI theories this way (see Figure 2):

Moscovici: Apple tastes good
Apple looks good
Apple must be good
Latan�: Number (vastness): How big is it?
Immediacy: Is it within reach?
Strength: Is there enough of it?
So, Latan�’s DSI theory could be applied this way
regarding the PR practitioner’s press release:Number: How big (important) is this news and is this person reliable?
Immediacy: Can I get the information within my grasp?
Strength: Will it strongly draw audience attention?

Figure 2.

Advertisers well know the significance of these dimensions with dense print and electronic ads, multiple messages and timely placement, and political candidates bombard us with TV ads using again these same dimensions. Likewise, public relations practitioners and media relations writers should understand these dimensions in terms of the press releases they generate.

Decisions about the sample

According to dynamic social impact theory, which is the main theoretical concern in this study, there should be more knowledge about the media relations writers by those papers who deal with the writers often and/or who are closer in proximity to the flagship university. The location of the newspaper then was a primary consideration. With this in mind, and because some of the dailies are within 35 miles of each other, the selection was a strategic one. Using a standard ruler, a hexagon was ruled onto a map (22 inches x 36 inches) of South Carolina with Columbia, South Carolina as the center of the hexagon. The lines of the hexagon ran from three to six inches.

Newspapers were selected that were in each of the four corners of the state (Figure 3 above) Rock Hill (north), Greenville (west), Myrtle Beach (east) and Beaufort (south). Cities or towns were eliminated (Spartanburg, Anderson, Lancaster, Bluffton, Union, Hilton Head and Greenwood) because of their proximity to the larger newspapers (e.g., Spartanburg is within 31 miles northeast of Greenville; Greenville is 17 miles northeast of Anderson; Lancaster on the south east side and Spartanburg on the southwest side are within 20 miles of Rock Hill; and Union is within 20 miles of Newberry; Hilton Head/Bluffton and Beaufort are about 40 miles apart; and Greenwood is 30 miles north of Aiken). (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Location of South Carolina Dailies

Another decision was made to interview only the daily newspaper editors as opposed to any weeklies. Generally, while weeklies will pick up more verbatimpress releases than will dailies, dailies publish more articles per paper than weeklies (.g., per data gathered in 1997, 16 dailies published 392 articles related to the university’s press releases or 24.5 average articles per paper; 69 weeklies published 430 or 6.23 average articles per paper).

The question at the outset of this research is whether the researcher can generalize the findings to journalists (editors and reporters) at large. Interestingly, Babbie points out the subjective nature of field research, such as the research conducted in this study,but also makes clear that whether the field research findings can be generalizable to a larger sample is up to the researcher. More importantly, he argues two things that are appropriate for this study: (1) the personal nature of observations and measurements made by the researcher can produce results that would not necessarily be replicated by another, independent researcher, but (2) because field researchers get a full and in-depth view of their subject matter, they can reach an unusually comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon being studied.26

By geographically targeting editors/reporters at dailies in the state that are equidistant from each other, experientially different, and otherwise demographically varied, the interviews should reveal information about those dailies not included in the interviews but which are in the same geographical location of the others.

Propositions

Dynamic social impact theory relies on three dimensions-strength, immediacy and number. Relationships that are strong are more communicative; people are more communicative when they are closer (immediately accessible) to each other; and for communication to assist in building relationships, people have to communicate often (number). Hence, it will take multiple contacts (Latan�’s number dimension) between two people to make a relationship. The research questions focused on these same dimensions, strength of the relationship, proximity of the persons involved and number or how often communication took place. Propositions (focused on strength of the relationship, geographical distance of the parties, and the denser the material received from the PR/MR specialists) can now be formulated that extend the research questions and at the same time, keep the dimensions of DSI theory in mind.

Strength:

P1The more understanding the editor/journalist has of what the public relations or media relations practitioner does or is trained to do, the more likely the editor/journalist will be receptive to information supplied by the practitioner.
P2The more reliable (accurate and trustworthy) the practitioner is perceived by the editor/journalist, the more likely the editor/journalist will be open to press releases or other news release from the practitioner.
P3The more positive the experience editors/journalists have with media relations and public relations professionals, the more favorable the opinion will be of all MR/PR professionals.

Immediacy:

P4The more accessible the public/media relations practitioner is to the editor/journalist for supplying more information or getting quick access by phone, the more likely materials will be well-received by the editor/journalist.
P5The closer, geographically, a newspaper is to a university or company, the more likely it will be that the editors or reporters will be familiar with the media/public relations writers at a specific university.
P6The farther, geographically, from the location of the organization a paper is, the less likely there will be an interest in press releases or other information supplied by the practitioner about the organization (the university in this study).

Number:

P7The more sources of information (experts, events), the practitioner can supply whether in the press release or by telephone, the more likely the release will be noticed/ attention given by the editor (and the higher the chances are for publication of the press or news release).

Interviews of journalists

South Carolina comprises 30,000+ square miles and has approximately 480 towns/cities. The capital and the largest city is Columbia, which is almost in the geographic center of the state. The longest distance from Columbia to another town in the state is 147 miles to Walhalla (which does not have a daily newspaper). For this study, once the key cities were systematically chosen, the various newspapers were contacted and interview dates established beginning January 15, 1999 and ending June 2, 1999.

Two forms of interviews generally are used: structured (in surveys) and unstructured (in field research), according to Babbie. He defines unstructured interviews as “an interaction between an interviewer and a respondent in which the interviewer had a general plan of inquiry but not a specific set of questions that must be asked in particular words in particular order.”27 The thrust of the interview questions would be on perception. The concept “perception” is sufficiently defined by Mayfield:

Perceiving is both a receptive and an active process. When we perceive something, we catch and hold it in consciousness until we grasp forms, shapes, patterns or meanings. Sensing comes before perceiving. Sensations have to be held in consciousness long enough to be interpreted by perception. This makes perceiving closer to thinking than to feeling.28

Findings in respons to research questions

Q1How do journalists define public relations/media relations practitioners?

About the terms, public relations and media relations, most of the reporters and editors admitted they did not really see a difference in these two terms. They understood media relations people to be public relations practitioners. Most, however, were not aware, for example, that at the University of South Carolina-Columbia, the media relations department and the public relations department (called Public Affairs office) are separate jobs/departments. (See Q1 responses in Appendix.)

In all cases, the editors and reporters felt that while media relations may be a separate department, the fact is that the people who work in media relations are still doing a form of public relations. The people interviewed in Columbia at The State were on a first name basis with people in both departments.

While the editors and reporters interviewed seemed to understand what it is that public relations people must do. They did not agree, however, on certain terms the researcher suggested to them which might label the relationship between reporters/editors and professionals in public relations. The terms were not explained denotatively to those interviewed, so the “meanings” were left to each interviewee. Journalists in this sample objected to all of these terms (denoted by the “x” indicating disagreement) and would discuss their reasons for disagreement. Yet, interviewees could not come up with a label for the relationship (see Table 1).

Table 1. Terms that label relationship of editors/reporters & media/public relations professionals
Agree = YDisagree = xSomewhat agrees = xYNo opinion = –
Terms:PartnerAccompliceCollaboratorFacilitatorSuggestor/Guides
1xxxYY
2xxxYY
3YxY
4xxYxY
5xYY
6xxxYY
7xYxYxYxYxY
8xYxYxYxYxY
9xYYxYxYxY
10YxxYY
11xxxxx
12xxxxY*
13-
14xxxxYx
15xxxxx**
16xxxxx
* agreed but reluctantly
** felt she looked at them as sources of information and these terms did not quite fit

The interviewees offered various definitions of the term, public relations, that ranged from a person putting the best light of the company forward to the public to one who fans the flames, good flames, of things going on to getting information about in an effort to get its best image presented about a company. (See Q2 Appendix.)

In all 16 cases, interviewees had a fair knowledge of the term and could describe various public relations practitioners they have dealt with in the past. Those editors and reporters with more than ten years of experience, naturally, could relate more examples of both efficient and poor public relations practitioners.

Interviewees agreed that their consistent interactions meant that there were interpersonal (professional) relationships with people who work in media relations or public relations, but they could offer no term (word) for the relationship. Most stated there was a certain criminality associated with the terms, accomplice and collaborator, and disliked the inference that there was an egalitarian relationship in the usage of the word, partner. The made-up word, suggestor (or guides) was objected to by some of the interviewees because again there was an inference that reporters were led around by their noses to get their news. However, it was this very word did get the most agreement (10/16); facilitator came in second in agreement (8/16).

Q2:What do journalists really think of public relations and media relations professionals?

Each interviewee quickly identified professionals who, in their opinion, were “good,” meaning positive, and for the most part, ethical and cooperative; they had no trouble identifying the “bad” professionals either. Their examples included previous situations that they could remember. Their major complaint was that the poor or negative type professionals in public relations or media relations denied issues, avoided interviews and would not return phone calls. Journalists in this sample unanimously argued that the direct and honest public relations representative for any institution, corporation or organization is much preferred even when that representative is not able to give journalists all the details about an issue. The thrust of their complaints is that some communication is at least better than none.

One editor said that there are honest and ethical people who truly have the interests of their organizations at heart; another claimed that all too often the public relations person dodges the press; another claimed that too often the PR representative works to the disadvantage of the company by camouflaging figures or facts; and another felt that there is a symbiotic relationship between the PR rep and the journalist. Mostly, there are more negative comments from journalists/editors than there were positive ones. (See Q3 in Appendix.)

Q3Does familiarity with the PR/MR representative for an organization affect overall perception of the person and profession?

To repeat, dynamic social impact theory proposes that socially we will have impact on either people who are closer to us, in space and time, and/or by targeting an object with more sources (messages). For example, we are likely to buy a raffle ticket when approached by someone we know or when approached by repeated messages (posters) located practically everywhere we go. Those editors/reporters interviewed who worked for dailies in the outlying cities in the state (Figure 3.)-Greenville, Rock Hill, Myrtle Beach, Florence, Charleston and Beaufort-said they knew the staff in the Media Relations Department at the University of South Carolina either by telephone contact on a regular basis or because the MR writers had made site-visits to the newspaper offices within the last year. None could recall any of the staff’s names, however.

Those editors/reporters at newspapers closest to Columbia, i.e., Newberry, Orangeburg, Sumter and Aiken, were familiar enough that they knew names of the staff and had met them on more than one occasion in the last year. An editor and two journalists in Columbia who were interviewed, expectedly, knew the staff in the MR department quite well because of frequent contacts throughout the year.

Q4What do editors want of the public relations or media relations representative, whether in press releases or phone calls?

All editors said that they regularly have to sift through 20 to 100 items a day, not all of which come from just one university. The researcher asked them individually what they looked for in the press release. Responses again held one common theme – the idea that facts need to be outlined first in any press release, that timeliness is crucial and that conciseness and clarity get editors’ attention. (See Q4 in Appendix.)

Summary of the propositions

The propositions are reviewed using Latan�’s impact dimensions previously discussed.

Strength:

P1The more understanding the editor/journalist has of what the public relations or media relations practitioner does, the more likely the editor/journalist will be receptive to information supplied by the practitioner.

Of the sample interviewed, 16, two subjects had been in public relations previously and one subject had just recently crossed over from reporter to public relations staff; additionally, one editor said that he had taken a public relations course. These four subjects had much better understanding of what the public relations/media relations practitioner or representative deals with on a daily basis. They understood the value of the spin and did not have the pervasive negative connotation of the concept. They were more apt to trust the public relations representative until they had reason to do otherwise. Other subjects interviewed were more apt to distrust the public relations representative until they had reason to trust them. Hence, their comments about public relations in general and those people who work in the field were more qualified and thoughtful than the other subjects’ comments that were gathered in the study.

P2The more reliable (accurate and trustworthy) the practitioner is perceived by the editor/journalist, the more likely the editor/journalist will be open to press releases or other news releases from the practitioner. Editors in the study readily admitted that they do try to read all press releases because they are afraid they might miss something important and, of course, don’t want to be scooped. Yet most complained about the inaccuracy of the materials they receive which included information given to them over the phone. Those editors and reporters who could name people they held in high esteem were, on the other hand, those practitioners who supplied them with accurate material and were prompt, which meant for journalists, they were more trustworthy and reliable. Predictably the strength of the relationship, like any other relationship, relies on these very attributes.
P3The more positive the experience journalists have with media relations and public relations professionals, the more favorable the opinion will be of all media relations/public relations professionals.

While editors and reporters in this sample readily admitted that the media relations writers at the university are cooperative, professional and easily accessible to them, they also readily admitted that they still think of public relations as spin people. Nevertheless, when pin-pointing their experiences with the group at the university, they unanimously agreed that they get cooperation from them and generally felt that at universities those people who put out the media releases were usually very cooperative. They also pointed out that when there is a crisis, however, the university public relations representative will take on a new attitude and that view of nice and friendly rapidly goes downhill.

Immediacy:

P4The more accessible the public/media relations practitioner is to the editor/journalist for supplying more information or getting quick access by phone, the more like materials will be well-received by the editor/journalist in the future.

Those editors/reporters interviewed all said that the one thing they disliked most is being told to wait for information about something they had already heard on the streets regarding the institution or organization. Neither did they like having to wait for phone calls to be returned. When they are looking at deadlines rapidly approaching, they said, the one thing that unnerves them is the run-around they perceive they sometimes get from the public relations or media relations representative for an organization. They concurred that they always remember those representatives who are prompt in returning calls and prompt in fulfilling requests for more information.

P5The closer, geographically, a newspaper is to the University of South Carolina, the more likely it will be that the editors or reporters will be familiar with the Media Relations writers. One reporter at The Statenewspaper in Columbia said “Oh yes, I’m in contact with him [a media relations writer] all the time.” When asked, how often? the editor stated, “Oh, I don’t know, about three or four times a week.” This same reporter also said that she felt she knew the writer pretty well.

The importance of this closeness for adequate press coverage is obvious. In the old days, it was far more convenient to walk into the local newspaper office and know the editor personally to discuss some issue that had appeared in the paper the night before, than it was to write a letter to an editor whose name and face one doesn’t even know. Today, daily contact with editors is electronically, via faxes, email and telephone. Again, however, the more often the contact, especially by telephone, the more the relationship will develop, at least a professional one.

P6The farther, geographically, from Columbia a paper is, the less likely there will be an interest in press releases about the university. This proposition pertains to the relationship either established or not established between media relations writers and reporters/editors. One editor said about the media relations writers at the university, “I feel like I know them; at least I know what they look like. And I speak to them fairly often.” One probably will not become familiar with someone if many miles separate the parties.

Information, then, about alumni of the University of South Carolina will not be newsworthy in a town to the southeast, such as Beaufort, or the northwest, such as Greenville, unless it is about the alumnus or alumni in or from that area. In order to gain attention of a Beaufort editor, a press release will have to be about some award going to a former Beaufort resident who is now graduating magna cum laude from USC-Columbia. In other words, it has got to be considered newsworthy (of importance) to the region. In DSI theory, we can look at the graduate as the source and the town of Beaufort as the target. Again, Latan� offers that the closer (more immediate) one source is to its target, the more impact will take place. However, once again, source and closeness may not be enough. The idea that newsworthiness is relative is an important variable under the heading of climate that is discussed more fully in the concluding chapter to this study.

Number:

P7The more sources of information (experts, events) the practitioner can supply whether in the press release or by telephone, the more likely the release will be noticed and attention given by the editor (and the higher the chances are for publication of the press or news release).

Editors in this study complained that all too often press releases either give way too much information (e.g., a history of the company or organization) or lack important information (e.g., a contact name and telephone number). They complained that too many “so-called” public relations people don’t have a clue about what they do. At the same time, they made mention that it was these same people too that made “far too much money” which inferred that the job title was especially annoying to editors and reporters.

Further Findings: similarities in media relations writers and journalists

The media relations writers in the case study agree with the journalists that community news is the most important news. Interviewees admitted they wanted accurate and complete information sent to them just as the MR writers declared that reporters want timely alerts. A couple of the editors at the larger papers admitted they want direct and honest communication with media relations/public relations professionals. The MR writers in the case study admit that they try to establish relationships with, especially, the local press and try to make annual visits to most of the press around the state for purposes of one-on-one communication.

Both groups view each other as professionals. The editors unanimously agreed that they could count on the MR writers at USC-Columbia to provide them with information they requested. They also claimed in their complaints about press releases that those emanating from the MR Department at USC for the most part were concise and precise in their focus.

While journalists object to terms like partneraccomplice and collaborator (and raised eyebrows at the implication that there is a relationship at all) as descriptors of the relationships they’ve established with professionals in public relations (including the MR department at USC-Columbia), the MR writers, however, at first, agreed with the term partner. Then, two of the five MR staff added:

“Well, yes, I do try to partner with the press, but I always remember that I work for the university, not them.”

“Boy, those sound way more dignified than the way I would put it. Journalists would never agree with the term.”

Like the media relations writers who seemed to have a clear understanding of their roles, the editors and journalists interviewed in this sample always spoke in first person plural:

“We prefer real stories and things that are not blown out of proportion…”

“Well, for example, one of our obligations is to get at the truth.”

“Most of the stories we get from them [the MR writers] we look at in terms of ‘is this something we will put in the paper?'”

“If we can establish a good local connection, we’ll work with it.”

“We don’t have the people who can backtrack and make sure the facts are correct and these are all the facts, so we are accomplices with the organization.”

Significance of the study

There are two parts to this study of perceptions that are significant. One is the inability to find a term to label the relationship editors/journalists normally have with professionals who work in media relations and public relations. The press disdains words like accomplice, collaborator and especially partner, and most of the editors interviewed arrogantly rejected the terms. Yet, one of the media relations writers in the case study was also arrogant in his remark about not working “for them,” meaning the press. Yet, what marks the relationship? The editors decide what is covered. Their decisions, they say, are based on their community. They claim decisions are objective, but this is a contradiction in terms because basing decisions on the needs of the community is subjective, and deciding what the community needs is also subjective.

When media relations writers send press releases to newspapers, they sometimes see the entire press release used verbatim in a press article. No byline is given the writer, no acknowledgement of thanks. Yet, reporters/editors seem to have a difficult time acknowledging that often they are cohorts with people in media relations and public relations, that they are accomplices of a sort, or collaborators, and yes, even partners. They are not, as Turk points out, “merely passive transmitters of knowledge or information.”29 Turk quotes Gay Tuchman’s 1978 proposition that the media construct reality for us. Turk asks who or what influences the media agenda for this construction of reality? She answers, “individuals working for media organizations and those outside the media organizations.”30 So, public relations professionals construct reality for us? And the question about impact is a toss up between the media who give us the news and the public relations/media relations people who often give media the news.

The second item of significance in this study is the fact that the interviews support Latan�’s theory about social impact. As stated earlier in this chapter, the newspapers closest to Columbia were more familiar (on a first name basis) with the staff of the Media Relations Department and the Public Affairs Department at the University of South Carolina. Other papers, explicitly outside the 50 miles radius, were not. When journalists (reporters or editors) are in close contact (either by contact, proximity or time), perceptions are more positive and press material from PR or MR writers is also viewed more positively. Social impact is then more positive when the climate of communication (Moscovici’s social representation of the physical world) is also more positive.

The third finding that is significant is that when editors/journalists had previous experience in public relations, either by taking a college credit course or by working as a PR/MR representative, their perceptions were more positive of the practitioner or representative working in the field. This finding was supported in an earlier study (Pincus et al, 1993). Knowledge, then, gained first-hand or by way of education makes a difference in this particular relationship.

Conclusion

This qualitative study portrays editors and reporters who know how to define the term, public relations, and they can provide examples of people they know that have operated as public relations specialists. But do they really know the day-to-day operation of the people who work in public relations/media relations? And, of course, while most public relations tracks (majors) require at least a reporting class for students, there is the question of how many public relations specialists understand the day-to-day operations of a newspaper. It is here that the climate of communication between the two groups studied could be improved. While it may seem simplistic in suggesting that the two groups really need to get to know each other to improve the climate of communication that surrounds them, it is not simplistic in suggesting that education and person-to-person contact are answers. At a minimum, people who work in public relations need to assure journalists that they understand journalism, have taken courses in journalism, and likewise, journalists need a course or two in public relations, which is a crucial finding in this study. The Pincus et al. study found that editors rated public relations practitioners higher when courses in public relations were controlled for. That is, editors in their study who had taken a course in public relations gave a higher (more positive) rating to PR practitioners than those editors who had never taken a course.

Most journalism programs do not require a survey course in public relations, but most reporters’ textbooks do include a section devoted to writing for public relations. An internet search of some of the major universities around the country supports this finding. (In this researcher’s own reporting classes, those students who want a career in public relations would not elect to take a journalism course if it were not required; likewise, the journalist-student who has been bitten by the reporting field does not readily take the survey course in public relations, since it is an elective.)

Journalists, especially editors, disdain the mere suggestion that they import information for publication from PR/MR specialists in the community. Short announcements especially for calendar pages in newspapers, however, do often come directly from press releases. Weekly newspapers [not included in this study], especially, must rely on the press releases for much of their copy. Evidence in the clip-ratio to press releases was found when this researcher conducted the on-site case study at the University of South Carolina’s Media Relations Department (in dailies and weeklies). A conclusion then is that while editors may not like the press releases they receive, in many cases, they rely on and use them.

What can change the relationship? A wake-up call to both editors and public relations/media relations representatives is certainly needed. However, it is this researcher’s opinion that the former group adjusts easier to negative opinions of PR/MR representatives’ dislike of them. Perhaps they believe it goes with the territory. Do editors/journalists care what the latter group thinks of them? The answer is probably not very much. PR/MR people, however, do care about the press’s dislike of them in so far as providing them/their clients with press coverage. One complaint of the journalists heard often during the course of this study was that “these people know how to woo us when they want coverage for an event.” If there were more “care” on the parts of both groups, there would be better press relations and hence better press.

Lastly, a future study is in now in progress. A survey instrument based on this qualitative study completed in 1999 is being mailed at this writing to 835+ managing editors at the daily newspapers in the U.S. The instrument could not have been developed without the personal interviews of the 16 journalists in this study. While it is too early to offer conjecture, it will be interesting to compare perceptions based on educational courses and experiences of those editors who respond.

This study is not limited to reporters and public relations specialists working in the area of the education beat. The findings in this study are generalizable to PR/MR specialists who work for large corporations and who deal with the press, nationally and locally, daily. The ire within the relationship of these two groups of individuals really shows its true colors during crises. Stalling the press, giving reporters inaccurate figures, constantly updating with more stall rhetoric are all the aspects of what makes press coverage become negative. There are many studies that conclude that negative press usually derives from negative communication. That is not to stay that the press is always right. The term, arrogant, is sometimes warranted, especially when journalists cross the line between the “right to know” and having patience. Meanwhile, public relations practitioners have easily earned the title spin doctors over the years; telling reporters what investors in the corporation want to hear instead of what the public needs to hear has created this stigma that looms over the career. A meeting of the minds is certainly called for; then, relationships will improve, news will improve, and the public will be better informed.

The maxim to be applied to these two groups is this: talking more to each other leads to knowing more about each other. Latan�’s impact theory is supported when editors talk about public relations specialists on a first-name basis. The climate of communication between people can only improve with knowledge. One certain prediction concludes this study: unless the two groups can improve the relationship as it exists today, generally speaking of course, the level of mistrust and disrespect will remain. The relationship will continue to spin a no-win.


About the Author:

Lee Bollinger is assistant professor in the Department of English and Journalism at Coastal Carolina University. This article derives from her dissertation, an exploration of the relationship of editors and public relations practitioners, completed in 1999 at the University of South Carolina, College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Currently, Lee is now analyzing results of a national survey of managing editors that culminated as a result of the case study discussed in this article. 

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