The art of PR is to ‘create news’; to turn what are essentially advertisements into a form that fits news coverage and makes a journalist’s job easier while at the same time promoting the interests of the client. Ironically this is often far cheaper than paying for expensive television advertisements that many people ‘zap’ with their remote controls anyway. Public relations people, many of whom started their careers as journalists, are able to turn their promotional material into a news story that is of interest to journalists, time it so that it has most impact, and target it to appropriate journalists. “In other words, behind the media gatekeepers is another whole level of information gatekeepers who are skilled in that most modern of projects, media relations and the making of ‘reportable events’.”
The reporting of news releases and pre-planned events by the media have three advantages to public relations firms. Firstly, they give credibility and legitimacy to what might otherwise be seen as self-serving publicity or advertising by giving it the appearance of being news delivered through the agency of an ‘independent’ third party—the media. While the public will be cautious about what they hear in an advertisement they put more faith in a news broadcast. In this case the media, with its profile of truth-seeker, serves the role that corporate front groups or think tanks fulfil for corporations; it can put the corporate view while appearing to be independent of the corporations that will gain from it.
Secondly, news releases and packaged news events are advantageous for public relations because they displace investigative reporting. The reliance of journalists on sources such as PR personnel and government officials is referred to as source journalism, as opposed to investigative journalism. By providing the news feedstock, they cause reporters to react rather than initiate. Journalists who are fed news stories are less likely to go looking for their own stories, which could bring negative publicity. Even the minority of newspaper stories that are the outcome of investigative journalism are often based on interviews which rely on access to important persons arranged through PR people.
Thirdly public information officers, corporate spokespeople and PR firms, appreciate that the “media set the public agenda of issues by filtering and shaping reality rather than by simply reflecting it.“ By being the primary source of a journalist’s information on a particular story, PR people can influence the way the story is told and who tells it. They also put journalists onto ‘selected’ experts to ensure their viewpoint is backed up by an ‘impartial’ authority in the news story. PR advice to corporations and industry associations is usually to develop, train and even put on retainer, “credible outside experts to act as ‘news sources’ for journalists.”
What the press release does is to establish lines of control regarding information. It initiates the news-making process, and sets ideal boundaries around what is to be known by emphasizing some information and leaving out other information.... what the public-relations practitioner must do is establish the framework for the event, the language by which it will be discussed and reported, and the emphasis to be maintained.
Public relations-based news stories are “more likely to reflect positively on the organisation providing the information and to reflect it’s issue agenda” than non PR-based stories. Jeff and Marie Blyskal in their book PR: How the Public Relations Industry Writes the News explain why:
Good PR is rather like the placement of a fish-eye lens in front of the reporter. The facts the PR man wants the reporter to see front and center through the lens appear bigger than normal. Other facts, perhaps opposing ones, are pushed to the side by the PR fish-eye lens and appear crowded together, confused, obscured. The reporter’s entire field of vision is distorted by the PR lens.