Chemistry with news media and PR agencies has become more essential in the digital age

As a financial journalist in South Africa, having worked in various news rooms in some of the major newspaper publishing groups, I was always confronted by an unwritten reality when dealing with Public Relations (PR) agencies.

Whether some might admit it or not, in the news room environment, it has always been frowned upon to source stories using PR agencies.

In one instance, a junior reporter had some serious shade thrown their way by a sub-editor after he made an attempt to storify a press release which was sent to him by a reputable PR agency regarding a technology summit that was scheduled to take place in Sandton.

Although there were some fundamental journalistic errors made by the cub reporter, the sub-editor’s response was an interesting one. He called the article attempt: “A shameless PR stunt masquerading as news”. It was left to myself and the news editor to help develop the story into a serious comprehensive piece that was fit enough to be published on one of the largest financial publications in the country.

There were two problems with this scenario that come to mind. Number one; the sub-editor dismissed a very important summit that included ministers and business leaders in the fields of technology and communications as a shameless PR stunt, instead of looking into the release and guiding the young reporter into picking the important elements of the story and following it up to ensure that it is newsworthy, educates, informs and empowers the reader on this technology summit.

Instead, the dismissive nature of the sub editor reinforced a misguided belief that PR agencies and the work they do are bad for newspapers, which is a fallacious assumption at its best. The second problem is that an opportunity was missed. Had the proper guidance been put into effect, the cub reporter could have got a big break and interviewed some of the leading figures in government and business on the pressing issues facing technology and communication in Africa.

Had the proper guidance been effected, more breaking news stories, features and opinions pieces could have been retrieved, enlarging the newspaper’s contact base which is critical in the journalistic environment. In this case, the suspicion and lack of chemistry between news media and a PR agency blocked what could have been a career altering event for the young reporter.

Such scenarios are illustrated fantastically, by John Lloyd and Laura Toogood in their book titled: Journalism & PR: News Media and Public Relations in the Digital Age. They contend that public relations and journalism have had a difficult relationship for well over a century, which characterised by mutual dependence and – often – mutual distrust.

Lloyd and Toogood offer a timely and perceptive analysis of the fast-changing media market in which both journalists and PRs are having to learn new tricks, especially when it comes to what one can get from the other. In recent years, developments in corporate PR and in political communications mean that the news media outlets are less and less important to the persuaders.

While the concept of reputation for both institutions of PR and news media are very important, surely there should be a synergy where the level of chemistry between these two entities is stable.

PR companies now appear to be the dragon by the gate so to speak, where they are heavily involved in protecting the reputation of companies, institutions and individuals, especially with the explosion of social media platforms where various people and entities are open to attack.

Newspapers also have to protect their own reputations and ensure that they provide news that is impartial, well researched, accurate and agenda setting.

Whether both parties like it or not, they are two sides of the same coin and they balance each other out, which is important to have a high degree of stability and regard for one another because contacts, content and news always develop and manifests themselves in ways that we have never imagined.


Ayanda Mdluli is a former financial journalist and the current senior writer at Glasshouse Communication Management. 

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