Friday, March 18, 2011

CHURNING OUT THE WORDS

I’ve been following the conversations and reading a range of articles on the issue of “churnalism” – and I am struggling to work out what the fuss is all about.

I run my own PR business and I am a former print journalist and when I started out in newspapers in the early 70s, PRs, as we know them today, were as rare as a news editor saying ‘thanks, well done” on a big story. Times have changed in PR, though I don’t know if news editors today are any more praiseworthy when it comes to the staff they have left.

Is the media becoming “a pawn” of the PR industry has been one question raised. My answer to that is: “We wish.”

The Media Standards Trust charity and its new website – good coverage of its launch was created by its PR team, incidentally – examines “news” of print and broadcast outlets, and measures up how much the information slavishly follows news releases from PR companies.

You can check the results for yourself http://churnalism.com/

In my experience, rarely – if ever – do newspapers or radio outlets or TV stations run a News Release word for word. The News Release can form the basis of news or feature copy for the media outlet concerned if and when editorial executives decide that the content is interesting enough for their readers/viewers. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

It’s no secret that media outfits have slashed the size of their editorial teams. As a result, there are fewer journalists in house to drum up the ideas to fill the daily news, features, specialist schedules that in turn fill the following day’s papers or the evening news bulletins. PR companies can provide information, suggestions and opportunities for the Press to take a look at, develop or, as often happens, reject.

But PRs are not in control of the media, well, I’m not and never will be. Or want to be for that matter. As I say to hopeful clients, I have a measure of influence but no final control. After all, the best PR fed story in the world will vanish if a major disaster strikes or last-minute advert is needed for a page.

No journalist today - be they staff on a tabloid or a broadsheet or in a news agency - would be in their right mind to shovel News Releases into a paper or broadcast programme without all the usual, necessary checks being made. At times, the News Release submitted can even be tweaked, twisted and torn apart to suit a particular newspaper’s editorial agenda. We’ve all been there, but, thankfully, not that often.

http://www.prmoment.com/585/by-copying-press-releases-word-for-word-are-churnalists-journalists-destroying-the-authority-of-news.aspx

So any notion that journalists today are in any way sloppy and happy to grab a News Release with both hands, slap a by-line on it and submit it to their editorial superiors is fanciful in the extreme. Doesn’t sound like any of the fine journalists I know and deal with on a regular basis. In fact, that insults the good journos working flat out in news rooms where empty chairs outnumber the occupied.

On the other hand, there is nothing devious, cheap or nasty about PRs offering ideas to journalists, or supplying images because a media outlet doesn’t have resources to take one for themselves. But that’s a far cry from leading the Press agenda. I see my efforts as a PR of being only part of it and, yes, if my clients have a positive, profile-raising outcome, I reckon I’ve done my job pretty well.

Neither is the so-called lack of investigative journalism – being replaced by churnalism, some claim – the fault of the PR industry. The MPs’ expenses scandal was a big, full-on exemplary piece of investigative journalism, so that weakens that argument in some ways, doesn’t it.

To my mind, PRs and journalists benefit from each other’s existence. The journalist who gets the case study for a feature in time to meet a deadline because a PR has set something up is grateful, and so is the PR for a positive outcome. By the same token, the journalist who can’t persuade a PR to be more revelatory in some circumstances will be displeased. The PR whose briefing is distorted will also be far from chuffed.

The journalist getting, for example, the “big jobs boost story” is happy, the PR acting on behalf of the jobs’ boosting organisation is equally content. And the readers/viewers will be interested in new jobs. This is a simplistic example, I admit, but it does show the mutual benefits to both the Press and PR camps.

If you agree, I’d be pleased to hear from you. If you don’t, I’d like to hear what you think, too.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

HOWLERS ON THE RADIO

I will be making every effort to catch this BBC radio programme on Monday, March 7 http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/news/gobbledygook-on-the-bbc.html

It’s the day the Plain English Campaign – http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/ – holds its annual awards so I’m keenly anticipating gobbledygook howlers with the guilty named and shamed and suitably humiliated.

I am looking forward to hearing of one example from the NHS that took 229 words to define a hospital bed. Made or unmade, I don’t know.

I’ve blogged before on my love of plain English and I reckon I visit the Plain English Campaign’s excellent website regularly. I’ve often thought it would be great to work for them.

It can be amusing to berate those who drivel for a living and it is certainly infuriating to come up against buzzwords in business and elsewhere that mean absolutely nothing.

But news reports this week from the coroner’s inquest into the July 7 bomb attacks in London said that baffling jargon could costs lives as it caused confusion among emergency service personnel.

Do you have any idea what “a conference demountable unit from the management resource unit” is? Me neither.

It is a mobile control room – so why not say that?

This bureaucratic bluster prompted one MP to suggest that jargon is “often used by people who have been trained, rather than taught to think.”

Now that’s worrying, isn’t it?

For 30 years, the Campaign has proved to be one of the most powerful grass-roots movements in the UK. Its website is a delight and I suggest you try the grammar quiz – I got three wrong so my Dad would have been horrified.

It also has interesting comments including one from former Prime Minister Thatcher, who said: “Some people think that flowery language and complicated writing is a sign of intellectual strength. They are wrong.”

This is the only time I have ever agreed with her.