Reading between the lines

By Nico Hernandez
Photos by Brian Kurokawa

When a company wants publicity, it often works with a public relations firm on a press release. Many journalists—pressed for time and facing decreased newsroom resources—rely on these releases to tell their story.

The symbiotic relationship between public relations and journalism presents both risks and opportunities. Press releases represent a gold mine of information for journalists, but they only represent one side of a story. And for PR companies, if a mistake is made in a release, it can damage their client’s reputation, the journalist’s, as well as their own. Given a release’s vast distribution, the impact can be far-reaching for all concerned.

Norman Stowe, managing partner of Pace Group Communications, has been in the PR business for 30 years. Stowe started as a journalism student at UBC in 1972. He then went on to work at what used to be the Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation.

Stowe understands the pressures journalists face when reporting on time-sensitive issues. At Pace, he provides media training and shows companies how to write the perfect press release.

“We’re simply the vehicle for getting the story out, and we sort of act as the go-between for clients, or wherever the story is coming from, and the particular media,” he says.

Stowe says that companies are competing to have their stories told, so interesting topics, headlines and introductions are a must.

“I think the biggest thing is not to send the media things that they’re not going to be interested in,” he says. “It’s a waste of their time, it’s a waste of your time, and you end up getting a reputation for wasting time.”

Sources have to be trained to talk to the media as well. Pace trains its clients two to three times a month so that spokespeople can deal with journalists in an effective and ethical manner.

“The one thing that we reinforce with everybody is to never, ever, lie to the media,” Stowe says. “Even if you think you can get away with it, don’t do it, because sooner or later, that lie is going to come back and haunt you.”

“It becomes a nightmare if you’re not [honest], and then you’re trying to scramble and pick up the pieces afterwards. Meanwhile, you shot your credibility to hell. The media and the public won’t believe you.”

Stowe says that sometimes clients try to use a reporter’s deadline against them in the hopes of avoiding certain questions.

“I can’t think of anything worse, that irks somebody in the media [more than having] to put in a phone call, leave a message and never hear from people,” he says. “The person getting the voicemail knows that the media wants to ask them hard questions, and they often figure if they avoid the phone call, they can avoid the hard questions and the story will go away.”

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Norman Stowe left a promising career in journalism for a position in the PR world

He says that this is not a proper avenue to go down when dealing with reporters. “It doesn’t work that way because the story and questions don’t go away.”

No matter how successful the relationship between journalists and public relations professionals, a reporter should always treat the contents of a press release with some scepticism.

Cara McKenna, a freelancer who has worked for The Canadian Press, says that journalists should first think about the public interest when using a press release. “You have to think as a journalist: ‘Is that an important fact?’ Just because it is in the press release doesn’t mean you have to write about it.”

McKenna argues that journalists have to seriously consider the motive of the firm, and their client, when a particular cause is being promoted. There are often layers of self-serving content that have to be stripped away. “You need to cipher through information and figure out what the story actually is because that’s not what they’re trying to portray.”

In such cases, what journalists end up writing might not be what a PR firm or its client had hoped for, but it may end up being a story that gets more traction. Ultimately, the tension between journalism and PR is nothing new, as a 1989 Canadian Journal of Communications article by Jean Charron indicates.

“Public relations officers succeed in exerting influence on journalists only to the extent that they yield, to a point, to the journalists’ demands,” wrote Charron. “By complying with the journalists’ working requirements, and by striving to meet their needs, public relations practitioners make use of journalistic constraints for their own benefit.”

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