As I’ve written more for Adfreak and The Drum I’ve become the target of more PR pitches, most of them around movies in some way shape or form. Some of them I’ve written up, some I haven’t. Almost everyone, though, has been picked up by other entertainment press outlets and after years of being almost exclusively on the “pitching” side of the equation, it’s been an eye-opening experience.
Specifically, it’s shown me that a good chunk of journalism is simply copying and pasting from the press release and calling it a news story. There have been a number of instances where I’ve seen the press release in its raw, unedited form and then, days or hours later seen it barely altered for a “breaking news” story somewhere. There’s no additional context given to it, no additional insights into what it means. Just the same quotes and same positioning that was offered in the official version.
Usually when media commentators and pundits complain about mere stenography masquerading as journalism the target of their ire is the political press, the ones who merely repeat the talking points of politicians. But it’s just as prevalent in other fields.
Part of that is because it’s easy content and that, right now, is the order of the day. It will take a writer far less time to just make a few adjustments to a press release and rearrange some quotes before publishing it with some vaguely relevant picture than it will to get on the phone, ask a couple of questions that dive a bit deeper into the story and then add commentary or context and then run it past editors. That process is hard and takes time. Much quicker to get the story out quickly and rack up the pageviews via some social promotion.
There are reasons for this, of course. For one thing, not every story is worth that kind of deep digging. Some are pretty simple announcements that don’t rise to the level of necessitating heavy investigative journalism. For another, press outlets want to remain on good terms with PR people. Not only will those publicists be more inclined to send them “real” news later on if they’ve already received favorable coverage but as more and more outlets shrink their newsrooms, those journalists may need to turn to the network of PR contacts for a job at some point. It’s in their best interest to be friendly and cooperative.
For the reader, though, it means media is an endless road of nothing but chain fast food places. They’re all McDonald’s franchises, serving up the same meal that you can get a mile away or a mile after that. There’s nothing unique to differentiate your coverage from anything else. Oh you might have one or two writers that offer interesting and original perspectives, but that’s like the movie studio that releases one or two “prestige” films a year that it can point to as important even while it endlessly rehashes IP it’s been mining for 20 years. It’s a thin veneer or culture put over an appeal to the lowest common denominator.
There are two options for outlets of any sort, be they in the entertainment, technology or any other vertical:
- Just say “No thanks.” This isn’t actually that hard. Not everything is actually worthy of coverage, and if there’s no unique angle that can be put on the news by the writer or outlet being pitched, then it’s not worthy of being published under that outlet’s masthead. Editors should demand that writers bring original thinking and insights to the table, not just the ability to regurgitate press releases.
- Offer those sorts of unique insights. Put the news that’s being pitched in the context of the overall industry or the company specifically. How does it fit into what the writer knows about the company and its mission or goals? How does it compare to similar offerings by other companies? What’s unique about this and what value does it offer the end user or audience? Those are all questions that many writers, particularly those who have been covering an industry for years, are extremely well-qualified to answer.
One final point: Part of this equation also entails a corporate communications team that knows the difference between what is and isn’t news the mass media will be interested in covering. In my experience, a bit of news has to clear a certain bar in order to actually be pitched as opposed to being distributed solely on owned outlets like a corporate blog. That’s not because the press isn’t important, it’s because those big press pops needed to be saved on what was truly relevant to that outlet’s audience. Basically, if you know you have 12 chances in a year to score significant press coverage, you need to make sure you’re taking your 12 best shots, not throwing everything against the wall. If someone covers a less important story now, they may not be able to help you, the PR practitioner, out when there’s something more substantive two weeks later.
I’m far from the first person to make the case that the press needs to more firmly uphold its place as a gatekeeper between the overly-anxious PR industry and the audience, passing on from the former only that information that’s will be of the most interest to the latter and with the appropriate framing and context. Now that I’ve seen both sides of the coin in such clear terms, though, that mission seems more important than ever. Personally, it’s one I intend to do my best to execute on.