Archive for the ‘PR’ tag
This post was first published on PBS MediaShift Idea Lab on April 26th 2013
When we launched Churnalism.com in the U.K. in 2011 it was not, shall we say, well received by some of those in the PR world. “PR industry hits out at Churnalism.com site” read a headline in the U.K. trade paper PR Week. One organization – SWNS – even contacted us to object strongly to the press copy based on their OnePoll surveys being highlighted on churnalism.com. We demurred. (You can read about it here.)
Ruffling a few feathers was, we thought, a sign we were probably doing something right. The Sunlight Foundation appeared to think the same and got in touch to find out more about the software we developed to power the churn engine.
Sunlight rightly realized the potential behind the software we had developed (or to be more precise, that Donovan Hide had developed). Super Fast Match, or SFM (as we named it), could not only be used to track churnalism, it could track matching strings of text in any document online — something that Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales noted in The Guardian shortly after the site was launched. Sites like churnalism.com, Wales noted, “show us that the Internet is perfectly capable of correcting its own follies.”
And so the Sunlight Foundation and the Media Standards Trust began working together to enhance the software. Our first project was geared toward enhancing and open sourcing the code for SFM. Sunlight was, among other things, keen on tracking the influence of lobby groups on U.S. government legislation. Donovan developed a souped-up version ofSFM which has been used for ad-hoc Sunlight analyses, notably the spread of legislative provisions among sets of selected bills, as well as being made available for anyone to reuse (see link).
We were always hopeful that, after we had enhanced SFM, we could work with Sunlight to produce a new, improved version of Churnalism for the U.S. The U.K. version — chugging away at churnalism.com — is still an important and useful resource. But it has always been hampered in its success because it relies on people coming to the site and pasting in press releases. It could be so much more useful — and powerful — if it were integrated into people’s browsers. That way, you wouldn’t need to go to the site; you would just be alerted about possible churnalism when you’re reading a news article.
ENTER CHURNALISM U.S.
Fortunately, thanks to a second collaboration with the Sunlight Foundation, that is what we have together been able to do with Churnalism U.S.. The tool is now a browser plugin for Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer. It automatically accesses press releases from major public and private sources, and Wikipedia, such that the plugin can tell you when when you might be looking at churnalism, while you are reading the news.
We have learned a few things about churnalism over the last couple of years. The “Fourth Paragraph Rule” says that if a news article is based on a survey designed to get publicity, you’ll normally find the company’s name around paragraph four. If a headline includes the words “you need to…” then it is less likely there to inform you than to advertise to you. Watch out for superlative lists like “The sexiest jobs,” “The 10 most visited holiday spots,” “The top songs to send you to sleep.” Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving are also red letter days as far as churn goes. Predictable news pegs like these are a boon to press release writers.
And when you see a news story about sex, alarm bells should go off. Let’s say, for example, you read an article based on new research that has found sex with a condom is as pleasurable as sex without (like this one). Does the article tell you who conducted the research? In this case, many didn’t (see here), which is a shame since it turns out it was supported by Church & Dwight, the maker of Trojan Brand condoms and vibrators.
Our aim has always been greater transparency. As one blogger, sparked by churnalism.com, wrote to journalists in 2011, “If you have to churn, at least be honest about it.” Some news organizations do now link to press releases. Many still don’t. Which is why it’s very good news that we now have both Churnalism U.S. and Churnalism UK.With luck it will lead to a change in behavior. But even if it doesn’t, people will be able to see for themselves what is original journalism and what is churnalism.
Whoever does Tim Wheeler’s PR will be patting themselves on the back this morning.
The chief executive of property developer Brixton used the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s ‘All along the watchtower’ (yup, the one you’re humming now – though you’re probably thinking of the Jimi Hendrix version) to describe the state of the commercial property market – safe in the knowledge that it was a great news peg.
And sure enough, watch the coverage roll in:
A couple from the Guardian -
‘Too much confusion and no relief: property chief quotes Bob Dylan to sum up market malaise’, Philip Inman, ‘Property, the credit crunch soundtrack’, Julia Finch
One in the Telegraph -
‘Bob Dylan sums up British property woes for Brixton chief’
One in the Daily Mail -
‘I can’t get no relief, moans boss who loves Dylan’ Caroline Grant (not online)
…and a couple of pieces from Daniel Thomas at the FT
‘Brixton waxes lyrical with its warning on commercial property’, ‘Brixton paints picture of doom in results’
Nor did the comment sections want to miss out on an opportunity to get the public involved:
‘Which song best sums up the UK downturn?‘ Rowena Mason, Daily Telegraph
‘Going for a song’, Comment is Free, Guardian
Funnily enough, without the benefit of Dylan, Wheeler received a little less coverage with his predictions a few years back – see Jenny Davey in the Times (2004).
What benefit the blanket coverage of the press release (presuming most journalists don’t usually have time to read Brixton property’s half yearly results) does for the property company is not entirely clear, but Tim Wheeler has a future in PR if he wants one.
Selective and misrepresentative media coverage has led the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), the body that co-ordinates a dozen international humanitarian charities, to decide not to evaluate the overall success of these charities on the ground (according to today’s FT). DEC made this decision “due to the increasing tendency for the media to report evaluations selectively and take criticisms out of context” (Brendan Gormley quoted in the FT).
It’s easy to see why Gormley and others should take media coverage so seriously. A couple of months ago The Times reported that, following the significant amount of footage of the earthquake in China and the access given to domestic and foreign journalists to cover the disaster, over $900m was raised in aid. By contrast, despite a death toll nearly twice as high, and similarly awful destruction and suffering, Burma received only about $55m in aid.
Most aid agencies – and The Times article – linked the level of fundraising directly to the amount of media coverage. There were stories every night on the news from China, yet hardly any footage from Burma. As Mark Astarita from the British Red Cross said at the time, “At the end of the day, charitable giving doesn’t necessarily follow the need. Disaster fundraising follows the news agenda”.
So media coverage matters. And that includes coverage of the charities’ performance. Therefore if an independent report makes criticisms of their performance – as did a 2004 study of the way charities dealt with the 2002 drought in southern African – and the media pick up on those criticisms, then those charities receive less funding. Or so they believe.
This has led DEC to look ‘for new ways to ensure accountability’. Or, to be less euphemistic, to be less comprehensive in its post-appeal evaluations, relying on occasional reviews. And even with these not guaranteeing they will be made public.
But if the charities do not audit their own performance, who will? Journalists sometimes like to assess the way charities do their job, or where their money goes. But these assessments tend to be either unduly critical – ‘look how this money is being mis-spent!’ (e.g. see ‘Myanmar cyclone: Drug lord crony will profit’), or unduly uncritical – i.e. simply appeals for more funding (e.g. ‘Give disaster appeals a life’). Few journalists have either the time or the resources to monitor the work of a charity over a long period.
Perhaps the answer is for charities themselves to do less auditing and more reporting. As I argued in a previous post, if charities adopted some of the values of journalism and began reporting regularly on what they were doing – and this is reporting I’m talking about, not PR – then they couldn’t help but talk more honestly about the successes and failures on the ground.
Some charity heads will still complain that any self-criticism will be leapt on by journalists looking for fault, but at least it gives charities more control of the story, it enhances their commitment to transparency, and provides them with a defensible position should they need it.
The PR vs Journalism debate continues tomorrow – this time at the Westminster Media Forum. Lord Fowler and Baroness Howe are chairing – fresh from the Select Committee on Communications that just published its report on Friday. Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News, will open by painting a scary and depressing picture of the reliance of contemporary journalism on PR (I’m guessing – based on his description of the situation in Flat Earth News – he could of course paint a very different picture).
I’m appearing on one of the panels along with Mark Borkowski, Willam Gore and James Doherty, talking about what – if anything – can be done “to ensure good standards of reliability in reporting”.
Without reprising much of the background to this debate (for which you can read about – or even listen to – the PR/Journalism event we held back in April) I’m going to suggest three things (given I’ll only have 3 minutes):
1. We don’t need more regulation. As with regulation of the press, it’s difficult to see how the benefits of regulating PR would outweigh the damage it could do. Except in extreme cases – such as financial insider trading information – where there are already regulatory and self-regulatory measures in place, it’s hard to see how greater policing and surveillance by the government would be a better cure than exposure in the press.
2. We do need more transparency. When the number of people working in public relations in Britain surpasses the number of journalists (as happened recently according to Nick Davies), and when the line between PR material and journalism – especially online – becomes blurred to the point of invisibility, then it’s clear we need to know more about the information we’re consuming so we can judge it better. As David Weinberger writes in his fascinating new book, Everything is Miscellaneous, ‘the solution to the over abundance of information is more information’. Indeed this is the whole purpose of the Media Standards Trust’s tranparency initiative (that I’ve blogged about here).
3. PR needs to adopt some of the values of journalism. The growth of PR – within independent news and elsewhere – isn’t going to stop. PR will become bigger and even more amorphous. When you read on GreenPeace’s website that a Japanese vessel has just broken international whaling law, is it news or PR? Both. When you learn from an email press release that scientists at Newcastle have just identified an alzheimer’s gene is that news or PR? Both. Therefore it’s not a question of ‘how do we constrain PR?’ but rather ‘how do we change some of the behaviour and values of PR given its new and expanding role?’ In particular, how do we convince those within PR – particularly those in the public sector or at NGOs, that they are part of a new and expanded Fourth Estate, and as such have a greater responsibility to society than they used to (when much of what they put out was ‘filtered’)? (see earlier blog on ‘why charities need to become more like news organisations’ too).
Any thoughts on this much appreciated. These are tricky questions and I certainly wouldn’t claim to have answers to many of them – so let me know what you think (and if you let me know before tomorrow morning it’ll feed into what I say).