One of the oldest and most used public relations tools, despite changes in technologies, is still the press release or the news release. These releases include news, feature stories, bulletins, media advisories and announcements which flood media offices. Their purpose is to develop and maintain public goodwill for the organisation as well advocate favourable government policies.
Although many news releases are not successful and do not result in a news story, enough do succeed to ensure that much of the news people read or watch on television is manufactured by PR firms, rather than discovered by journalists. Between 40 and 50 percent of newspaper stories in the US, for example, begin with press releases. Most journalists rely on these sources to supply the raw material of their craft, regular, reliable and useable information. This flow of ‘free’ information saves the journalist time and effort finding stories to write about. Yet it is very difficult for the public to be able to distinguish real news from public relations generated news.
Often news stories are copied straight from news releases, other times they are rephrased and sometimes they are augmented with additional material. For example a study of the Wall Street Journal, a well known and influential newspaper, found that more than half the Journal’s news stories were based entirely on press releases. These stories appeared to be written by the Journal journalists but were hardly changed from the press releases.
This does not vary much between large and small papers as larger papers need more stories and smaller papers have fewer staff to write their stories. According to various studies, press releases are the basis for 40-50 percent of the news content of US newspapers.
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.
News releases do not necessarily go directly to newspapers. Often a public relations service will place it with a wire service first. (Some large agencies have their own wire services.) By 1985, PR Newswire was transmitting 150 stories a day from a pool of 10,000 companies directly into 600 newsrooms belonging to newspapers, radio and television stations. Such stories may be picked up by newsrooms or rewritten by wire services such as AP, Reuters, and Dow Jones. In this way the news release becomes a ‘legitimate’ news story and will be more likely to be taken up by journalists on the newspapers.
Satellite connections that enable public relations people to arrange live interviews with their client all around the country or even the world are one example of the expanding technological repertoire of public relations firms. These are referred to as ‘satellite media tours’ and enable a person to do interviews with televisions stations around the country without having to actually travel anywhere. The cost of satellite time used in this way can be cheaper than the cost of travel and accommodation.TV news directors at local stations like them because their own journalists can conduct a one-on-one interview that they can control rather than broadcasting a network distributed interview. It also means that PR firms can go direct to local stations and bypass the national networks.
During the 1980s PR firms began sending out video news releases (VNRs)—fully edited news segments for broadcast as part of television news. Hill and Knowlton established its own fully staffed television production facilities (as did Burson-Marsteller) and by 1985 was already sending video news releases via satellite all over the USA rather than relying on the old fashioned press release. It is popular nowadays to accompany the fully edited piece ready to be broadcast (A-roll) with unedited footage (B-roll) and a script so the television station crew can put together and edit the story as if they had shot it themselves, inserting their own journalist’s voice over, or adding their own material.
Studies showing that the vast majority of Americans get most of their news from television (81% according to a poll in 1992) have ensured that VNRs are now widely used by PR companies. They were used by all the presidential candidates in the 1992 elections. Mainly they are used by private companies to promote a corporate point of view. Specialists in this area advise customers that a VNR “can help position your company as the authority on a certain topic, issue or industry” and allow them to “take a stance on a controversial issue.” Making a VNR is cheaper than making an advertisement—$15,000 - $80,000 to produce and distribute compared with $250,000 for an advertisement—yet like other media releases, they result in news stories that are more credible than commercials because it becomes part of the news broadcast and not sourced back to the company that paid for it.
According to Public Relations Journal, “VNRs have gone beyond simply selling products and services. They’re now about selling ideas, changing and influencing viewer behaviour, and shaping public opinion.” Similarly a Hill & Knowlton executive said in 1994 that “we’re seeing more people who have a message to get across rather than just selling a product.” Lee and Solomon, in their book, Unreliable Sources, claim:
Every week, hundreds of local TV stations, beset by budget and staff cutbacks, air these free, ready-made news releases, which look increasingly realistic. Even veteran media observers often fail to distinguish between video PR spots and station-produced news.
The production quality of VNRs is now as good as or even better than that of local television stations and most news directors see them as a source of information rather than as a form of propaganda. One of the main distributors of video news releases, MediaLink, found in 1991 that all 92 newsrooms it surveyed had used VNRs from PR firms. This was confirmed by a 1993 Nielson study. Another survey in 1992 found that 80% of US news directors use VNRs a few times each month.
Video News Releases have been slower getting to other countries. By 1994, however, a MediaLink survey found that 87% of European broadcasters found VNRs helpful and 30% broadcast more than 10 per month. Additionally, 60% of European PR people wanted pan-European VNRs and 30% wanted US distribution.
In 1996 when the Australian Liberal Party used them in its election campaign for regional television stations, they were fairly new to Australia. Jonathan Raymond from Media Link in Australia told ABC Radio that there was already a tradition of sending background video information to television stations and that video news releases merely took this one step further. He explained that with the intense competition for groups to get media attention, video news releases gave his corporate customers extra leverage.
As far as the television viewer is concerned a VNR piece is done by the station’s reporters and is no different from the rest of the news. However there are important differences. Pre-packaged interviews can be edited to give the best possible impression. They avoid the possibility of probing or follow-up questions from a journalist, or impromptu and perhaps more frank responses from the interviewee. With a video release the person being interviewed can be coached to give the ‘best’ answers and any ‘mistakes’ can be edited out before the news room sees it.
VNRs allow the corporation to influence the agenda of the news by providing footage, that may otherwise be difficult to obtain (including archival, on-location and aerial footage), free of charge. Even if the station doesn’t use the footage it is a powerful way of suggesting how the story could be put together. Stephen Claney from the Australian company Interface argues that his company assists newsrooms overcome logistical problems. He says of one instance when he sent a video news release containing interview footage:
the newsroom simply went and re-interviewed the person, asked similar questions to ours, and then ran it in the story, using our overlay footage. So we assisted them in constructing the story, we gave them an example of someone who was worth speaking to, and showed them how it could be used. And I think that’s a great result all around.
Corporate videos are seldom labelled, for example an on-screen credit, “this video footage has been provided by company X.” Such labelling has been rejected by PR people who say their clients would not like it because they would lose the “third party endorsement a news report normally carries.” Says one VNR producer, “The public could possibly misconstrue the VNR as an infomercial”.