Bridging the public affairs/journalism gap

The relationship between public relations professionals and journalists can be a difficult one. We have different roles to play in the effort to provide information to the public. Ideally, a journalist wants to discover and report the truth about important issues and events, while the public affairs officer (PAO) or PR specialist wants to frame an organization's role in the most positive light possible.

I started giving this more thought last month when a report came out showing that most journalists who cover the government believe that federal agencies almost always restrict their access to agency officials.

On the one hand, this is kind of a “no duh” finding. It’s the job of the agency gatekeepers to restrict access. It’s the job of journalists to complain about the restrictions. Well, it’s not usually part of the formal job description, but it comes with the job nonetheless.

An agency's public affairs department can be either a blessing or a curse for a journalist — and sometimes a bit of each. The relationship between the two is often adversarial, at least in cases in which the PAO is trying shield from exposure what the journalist wants to expose.

But the PAO isn’t always trying to hide something. Often his or her role is to provide information and monitor it to ensure that it is passed on accurately. In the spirit of helping to make that happen, I’m offering some tips for the PR professionals.

  • Make officials available as quickly as possible. Reporters work on deadlines, and scheduling an interview two days after the deadline passes does no good.
  • If you’re sitting in on the interview, let the interviewee answer the questions. Speak up if the interviewee misspeaks or to fill in data that the interviewee doesn't have at his or her fingertips, but otherwise sit back and let the agency official do most of the talking.
  • Respond quickly if a reporter needs a few facts for an article or needs to clarify something that was said in an earlier interview. Again, time is usually a factor, especially for reporters writing for an online news site or a daily newspaper.

If you read this blog online, you might recognize these tips. I offered them and a couple more a few weeks back. In the course of writing that blog entry, I said most reporters are responsible professionals who aren't interested in sensationalizing the news.

Perhaps I idealize my profession or perhaps I’ve just had the good fortune to work with especially ethical colleagues because some of my readers expressed more than a bit of skepticism at that comment. Some examples:

“I can tell you that the typical journalist has no problem twisting what is really going on to either sensationalize the news or to add their personal bias to the point that their reports to the public are just a shadow of the truth. Often they show no respect for those they report on. Until the so-called journalists develop a strong sense of honesty and other morals for their profession, I do not see a strong need to cooperate with most of them.”

“It has been known for decades that many people studying to become journalists say that their intent is to ‘change the world.’ In other words, they want to become political activists under the guise of being reporters. As an avid reader of the news for over 30 years, I can tell you that much of the so-called news is really being written by political activists (a vast majority being liberal — as verified by over 50 years of surveys) calling themselves reporters. If public affairs specialists were dealing with only reporters and not activists, they would have a much better impression of journalism.”

The question of whether the media is biased is an old one. My impression is that it tends to follow the reader's own biases — that is, left-leaning readers tend to perceive the media as biased to the right while more conservative readers see a leftward tilt. I hope that means the reality is closer to the middle.

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.


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