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Technology, Changing Media Preferences and Newsroom Contractions Lead to Changes in the Old Journalism/Public Relations Pecking Order

August 8, 2018    I   A. Bruce Crawley

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In the old days, there was a decided pecking order among communications professionals: At the top of that order were those who practiced journalism, i.e., those who worked for a recognized, local, regional, national, ethnic, daily, weekly, periodical, print or broadcast media outlet. Over recent years, those who practice their craft digitally, as independent bloggers, have also been added to that list.


No matter the size, no matter the editorial mission, the “journalists” were the communicators who were considered worthy of respect and were seen as the only true keepers of the First Amendment flame. These were the communicators, we were constantly reminded, who routinely chose incarceration, rather than to reveal their “sources.” 


These were the same people who were lionized for practicing their craft on the front lines of some of our country’s most bloody wars, and who considered their own sacrifice a normal, expected part of the profession they had chosen.


On the other hand, those who inexplicably took their same journalism and communications degrees and worked to assist clients to convey truthful messages in private and public sectors, had no such respect attached to their own profession. Indeed they were seen as “flacks” and obfuscators of truth and were, thereby, demeaned as “charlatans” and “spin doctors.” In those days, it was considered normal for journalists, and others, to disrespect, look down upon and mistrust public relations practitioners. 


Today, however, a very credible source as regards all things related to journalism is causing us all to reflect, again, upon those outmoded notions, and to understand that we are, at the end of the day, in the “same foxhole.” Indeed, notwithstanding the daily, partisan rants about “fake news,” over the better part of 2018, the Gallup and Knight Foundation 2017 Survey findings, just out, informs us that Americans believe that 44 percent of the news produced by U.S.journalists is inaccurate. Is this simply poetic justice or a further indicator that this happens to be an unsettling time to carry ourselves with dignity, and to enjoy the work we love, in either of the two professions?


I never thought that I would wind up pursuing the masters of journalism degree, while still employed in the banking industry, or that I would wind up serving as a Senior Vice President for Public and Investor Relations at one of the country’s largest publicly traded bank holding companies. God knows that as an undergraduate marketing major, I never imagined for a second that I would grow to believe that  journalism and public relations had, at least, equally important roles to play in ensuring the sustainability of the U.S. economy as did  the omnipotent commercial banking business, which preciously employed me. But, I did.


I thought it was appropriate to think that way, and I further thought I was doing “God’s work,” morally important work...even in the then-beleagured public relations profession. After all, the pr firm I eventually established worked to ensure that our clients’ information was being appropriately disseminated and fairly understood by journalistic gate keepers, and we routinely assisted small, under-resourced non-profits, and candidates for public office, to communicate effectively about their activities.


It doesn’t require very much research to uncover the symbiotic relationship that has always existed between pr and journalism, notwithstanding the protestations on either side. 


As early as 1990, for example, Lee and Solomon found that “more than half of Wall Street Journal stories were based entirely on press releases.” That was occurring during a period when 40-50 percent of news stories, overall were originating from press releases. You wouldn’t know that, however, by the way that those of us in the two professions were socialized to stay in our own professional silos, unless it was absolutely necessary to do otherwise.


The story has become more complex as we have seen the number of newsroom job opportunities continuing to shrink following traditional media layoffs, and as we have read a recent Pew/Bureau of Labor Statistics Report which disclosed that working journalists now earn 65 cents for every dollar earned by pr practitioners. Those circumstances, not surprisingly, have led to an increasingly steady flow of experienced, even Pulitzer Prize-winning, former journalists into available opportunities in the public relations profession.


Yes, the business we share is changing. In the process, we’ve observed that the number of working journalists has decreased by 17 percent, over a 10-year period ending in 2013, from 52,550 to 43,630, while the number of pr specialists has actually increased by 22 percent, over the same period, from 166,210 to 202,530, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 


It’s clearly a new day, and a good time to call an end to the old “pecking order.”


I probably need to get right out and invite a few working journalists to lunch. It’s always a good time, also, to “catch up.”


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A. Bruce Crawley is president, CEO and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management, Inc. (M3M). Read More...

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