Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Citizen PR?

I was intrigued by Grand Rapids Press editor Paul Keep's Sunday column "The go-to people at The Press."

PR people in the region no doubt took note of the recent newsroom reshuffling, and in turn shuffled their own contact lists to send future news releases and pitches in the right direction.

But the column was not an inside-baseball document to PR pros. It was address directly readers as an invitation for those who "have a story to pitch or a concern to express." Certainly enterprising individuals without a PR job title have been able for some time to notice a byline, look up an address or phone number online, and pitch reporters. But this column was such an open and direct appeal that I got to wondering about the place of PR "professionals" in all of this. Just as journalists are being replaced or supplemented by citizen journalists, are PR professionals entering an era when their pitches compete with "citizen PR practitioners"? Should we envision a cacophony like that illustrated in the Ladders job search commercial when all the people jump on the tennis court?

What Paul Keep is doing is actually a response to the turmoil in journalism. Everyone knows local dailies are struggling, and part of the solution is to "engage" readers (this is also known as public relations, having two-way dialogue with your key public, a point I made to Keep last fall in a meeting when I suggested they have PR as well as journalism interns at the Press). Seeing readers as "customers"--also known as "market journalism"-- has been criticized from a big picture view because there would seem to be pressure to titillate vs inform in order to keep readers and stay financially viable. Some fear editors are as much as saying "screw the First Amendment and the noble notion of the press as an institution of democracy--we need eyeballs or we lose our jobs!" Well, the framers of the Constitution didn't have the people's right to know about the obese food offerings at Whitecaps games in mind when they made a special place for freedom of the press.

On the other hand, the role of journalism has always been to stimulate discussion and facilitate a public sphere in which citizens discuss important issues of the day. By making himself and the newsroom staff so open to readers' views, one could argue Keep is returning the Press to the historical role of journalism in democracy.

But then back to my original question. Where do PR people fit in this milieu of "the great unwashed" pitching their own stories directly to the newsroom? In some ways, journalists have always liked to hear directly from sources and citizens. If they didn't hear about it from a PR professional, they can call it "reporting," or maybe even an "enterprise" story. There is something more genuine about an average Joe calling with a story idea.

On the other hand, there's no guarantee that the common person will not be cluttering newsrooms with all manner of self-promotional, nebulous, non-newsworthy nonsense. Journalists may appreciate a professional public relations person now more than ever.

But the key is "professional." It has always been the case, but now more than ever PR people must demonstrate their merits by only pitching or releasing news that is as much or more in the public interest than their clients' or organizations' private interest. PR professionals will be valued for recognizing legitimate news, disclosing information people have a right to know, sharing information people want to know, providing access to people journalists want to interview, and explaining complex information clearly. We will be respected for advocating a point of view in the arena of public discussion, not for self-promotion and attempts to manipulate public opinion.

Just as "professional" journalists are distinct from and supplemented by citizen journalists, "professional" PR practitioners must distinguish themselves from others who seek audience via the media. Citizens are participating in their own journalism and public relations on their own blogs, Facebook notes, and tweets. For journalists and PR practitioners alike, our worth is not going to be that we can communicate, but how.

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