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Digital Delivery of Multimedia PR Material is Essential to the Media – Part 1

November 2, 2011

The last 20 years has seen a dramatic shift in the way journalists and PR’s interact. In this two part post, we examine how the media has changed to become completely reliant on what it once considered a parasite – commonly known as PR – and how the PR Industry has been forced to provide far more than a press release to keep up with the rapidly changing demands. The World Wide Web is now 20 years old. Part 1 looks at how the media changed in the first 10 years of the World Wide Web and some of the catalysts for their change in attitude. Part 2 will examine the last 10 years and how this has driven the change in the types of content media now expect will be provided to them.

Most of the changes in the media can be attributed to the Digital Age and the maturation of the World Wide Web from something that promised to be information super highway (at the time filled with potholes) into an integral part of our daily lives however that isn’t the whole story.

The cracks in the media industry first started to appear in 1990 with the merger of The Herald and The Sun News-Pictorial in Melbourne and The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mirror. This change not only lead to the eventually demise of afternoon editions but also instigated widespread (and generous) redundancies within the entire News Limited empire. It also lead to the demise of the traditional cadetship model – the single biggest breeding ground for journalists and photographers in the country.

The significance of this cannot be overstated, newspapers were, indeed still are, not only the largest source of journalists but also the agenda setters of the day. Even now 57% of Australians believe newspapers drive the news. And simultaneously the elder statesmen (and women) of the profession went into early retirement and the training structure for the next generation was abandoned.

This change coincided with the printing of colour editions of News Limited papers which was rolled out progressively across the country. More significantly than having colour pages, this shift brought about the Digital Age for newspapers in Australia. In order to publish the news, pages needed to be created electronically and sent, via FTP over the Internet, to the printing presses.

In the early 1990’s, the introduction of the World Wide Web opened the door a little wider for the media to access information across the globe more efficiently. By the mid 90’s a raft of search engines emerge that makes fact-checking as simple as point and click but these early forms of web searching were often inaccurate and slow. In 1998 Google launched and soon became recognised as a fast and reliable method for researching stories.

During this period the combination of staffing cutbacks and limited training saw the media’s reliance on PR as both the instigator and provider of news increase, despite the protestations of the industry to the contrary. In 2001 PR and media expert Jim Macnamara released a research report titled “The Impact of PR on the Media” which examined the relationship between the media and PR.

In this document Macnamara notes that most journalists’ and editors’ believe they are uninfluenced by any forces or motives other than dedication to truth and justice. He quotes the editor of InformationWeek, Richard Wood who wrote in a scathing editorial piece on the PR industry “IT journalists … resent the constant nagging of PR people who, quite simply, get in the way”. Wood followed this up with “… the idea that journalists would call a PR person for stories is simply weird” and “… strong stories virtually never come from PR people.”

At the time (and still today), journalists complained that the press releases they received were ill-conceived with little or no news value; poorly written and often addressed to the wrong person. Most journalists thought that very little of what appeared in the newspapers came from public relations sources.

Despite this a 1992 study of 150 news releases from 27 different companies and organisations were obtained and content analysis was undertaken of the media response. Articles were identified using a national press clipping service which provided 2,500 articles on the topics of the news releases from the selected media.

The study found that 768 stories (31%) were wholly or partly based on the news releases (including exact extracts or facts and figures without alternative attribution). While 360 (47%) of these were published in trade or specialist media, 245 stories (32%) of PR based stories were published in national, State or capital city media and that up to 70% of the content of some small trade, specialist and suburban media was PR-sourced.

In 2001, Clara Zawawi as part of a PhD thesis, conducted an analysis of 1,163 articles published by three leading metropolitan newspapers, The Courier-Mail, Sydney Morning Herald and The Age to identify the origin of media stories. Her research was able to confirm that 47% of articles in these three major metropolitan media were the result of PR activity.

As more fuel, Macnamara highlights that prior to the Sydney 2000 Olympics, an analysis by CARMA International of media coverage of Olympics sponsors compared with non-sponsors conducting active PR campaigns found several non-sponsors gained equal or more media coverage in relation to Olympics sponsorship than official sponsors. In 56 major Australian media articles in a three months period, the highest number of mentions of Olympics sponsorship was gained by a non-sponsor.

Macnamara points out what is not reported in any of these studies is the degree of ‘agenda-setting’ or ‘agenda-priming’ provided by PR through briefings to journalists, tip-offs, arranging trips (eg. overseas visits or tours), providing products for evaluation, or organising interviews with sources.

Despite media protestations that PR does not influence them, the converse is shown in numerous research studies – both academic and commercial media analysis.

So by 2001 the fact that journalists were using the web as a source of information and that they were relying heavily on PRs to provide content was well established. What was less clear was the preferred methods of facilitating the needs of the media.

Continued in Part 2…

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