Are PR pros tomorrow’s journalists? Ike Pigott explains the ‘embedded reporter’

I asked my students this week how news of the West Virginia mine disaster might have sounded if prepared entirely by the PR firm for Massey Energy, the mine’s owner.

Would we have learned about the 100+ safety violations at Upper Big Branch this year alone? Would we know about Massey’s environmental record in strip mining? Would the CEO’s arrogance toward the media have been highlighted? Probably not. But thanks to an independent news media, we’re getting a more balanced story.

Ike Pigott

Now, imagine a world where the mainstream media no longer have enough journalists to cover the news? Yeah. I know. We’re already there, aren’t we? But stick with me.

A thoughtful essay by Ike Pigott has me wondering and worrying about “The future of journalism.” The post scares me because it presents an all-too-real scenario.

Ike suggests that the future of journalism will depend on an army of “embedded reporters” who operate from within companies and organizations and are paid by those companies and organizations. If you know your PR history, you’ll recognize this “new role” as an old one known as “journalist in residence.” It dates back a century, to the days of Ivy Lee.

As the mainstream media continue to slash operating costs, there’s not a news organization on earth with the resources to cover every important event. Many already use press releases as primary sources, as there just isn’t time to examine every angle. PR materials, well prepared, are expedient. They fill the news hole.

Depending on whose study you believe, as much as 75% of news content is placed or influenced by public relations, and it’s been that way for a good while. But as news organizations continue to fire the editors who vet content, more of what PR produces goes mainstream without fact-checking or verification.

Ike’s vision for the future of news includes in-house corporate storytellers in the role of journalist. The media outlets themselves would become “aggregators and arbiters” of the content these embeds produce.

These new gatekeepers, much like editors of the past, will learn quickly which content providers they can trust and which they cannot. They will reject news that doesn’t meet the tests of accuracy and neutrality. But no matter how tough the standards, these aggregators will arrange and distribute news, they will not produce it.

We can only hope that, if Ike’s scenario becomes reality, these gatekeeper/aggregators are seasoned, uncompromising news veterans. But will that be enough to ensure the veracity of the news they distribute? Can the watchdog function of media operate in such a system?

Who will report the news? The ONLY group of communicators poised to fill this gigantic 24-7 news hole are public relations people. No one else has the resources. If that doesn’t scare you, you’re not thinking clearly. The news media are the guardians of democracy and the arbiters of truth — at least in theory. PR people, by definition, are advocates for clients and employers. They have a stake in the outcome.

You should hear at least some of this in Ike’s own words, and I urge you to take the time to read his post.

The embeds of the future will work for the company, and be paid by the company to provide news about the company in a multitude of formats. Print, newsletter, video, blog, podcast, moving billboards, tattoos — whatever it takes. Because the bits and pieces of Corporate America that have a story to tell will still have their stories – just no ready outlets.

How is this different than what you have today? Surely there are corporate PR departments and external agencies already doing these things, right?

No.

What is required is an internal producer who writes in external voice — like the neutral point-of-view so often described by Wikipedia. People can smell marketing and propaganda coming around the corner, and they know when the pitches and puff pieces are missing that edge of neutrality. An accurate and fair piece is accurate and fair, no matter who writes it.

Can PR fill “embedded reporter” role? A good many of us are trained at news gathering, writing and editing. We know how to create headlines that pop and leads that intrigue. Some of us even hold dear the journalistic values of truth, accuracy, fairness and balance.

But will the CEO pay us to tell a truly balanced story?

Buzz off! Massey Energy's Don Blankenship greets the camera!

Let’s go back to Montcoal, W. Va. Do you think Massey Energy CEO Don “Get outta my face” Blankenship would allow his staff to report objectively on the safety record of Upper Big Branch? Would you — could you — trust an embedded reporter from Massey?

If embedded reporters are, indeed, “the future of journalism,” ethics and transparency must be our guiding principles –  trumping all others.  The role of “advocacy” must disappear, and that takes us into uncharted waters, and toward an entirely new model of PR practice that extends beyond Grunig’s symmetrical notions.

See why I’m skeptical? It’s the fox guarding the hen house. It can work, but first you gotta convert the fox into a vegetarian — and that’s not in his DNA.

Please take the time to read Ike’s essay. I hope it haunts you as it did me. And, Ike, I salute you for opening what I hope will be a long discussion that reaches beyond the echo chamber of the PR blogs.

If Ike’s predictions on “the future of journalism” come to pass, we must begin to rearrange the role and the priorities of public relations. And we must begin to view the ethics of fairness and transparency not just as values, but as imperatives.

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12 Responses to Are PR pros tomorrow’s journalists? Ike Pigott explains the ‘embedded reporter’

  1. Ike says:

    Bill, I thank you deeply for continuing this line of inquiry, and one based in a much deeper background of history and precedent.

    I don’t have all the answers, and the ex-reporter in me clearly understands there are pitfalls. My inner cynic is not advocating this as an optimal solution – but my inner realist has a gut instinct this may be the best we can hope for.

    Until something else emerges.

    Those who want to flame and blame are free to do so, but remember, it was the consumer who fired the editors through canceled subscriptions and voting with the remote.

  2. Bill Sledzik says:

    That’s what most intriguing about your essay, Ike. It comes from a former journalist who holds dear the values of real news. It also presents a realistic view of the information channels as they are. This may not be where we WANT to go, but it certainly appear to be where we’re headed.

    If embedded reporters are the next wave of journalism, we’ll have to find a way to ensure that the public gets a reasonable dose of truth. And that’s damned tough to do when our system of news production and distribution is so dependent on advertising.

  3. Bill Sledzik says:

    Judy Gombita pointed me to a couple more posts on topics related to this one.

    Ira Basen (from a post on PR Conversations):

    Craig Pearce from a post on why journalists can become capable PR bosses

    Which led me to this post from marketer David Meerman Scott on the topic of “brand journalism.” Gotta admit, that term sticks in my craw.

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by scrowell: Excellnt read p.r. vs. news & future. RT @BillSledzik: My take on @ikepigott ‘s important essay on future of journalism http://bit.ly/95xfzp

  5. Mike Keliher says:

    If so much of today’s news-media content comes from news releases and cushy PR-secured interviews, couldn’t this be a good thing? Let some editors vet what comes in from these embedded journalists and free their staff reporters from the burdens of rewriting news releases.

    With that time-sucking news-release-shuffle off the plates of the non-embedded reporters, wouldn’t more reporting take place to balance the embedded stuff? #devilsadvocate

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    Mike,

    Plenty of people will agree with you, but I’m afraid I’ve gotta stick with the “fox and hen house” analogy. While many PR people, along with former journalists, are capable of writing neutral stories that engage readers, it doesn’t change who we are: advocates.

    The strength of the system, for the past century at least, has been a strong, free, and independent press.
    But as Ike points out, I may not have a say in this. It appears to be happening with or without my blessing.

  7. Mike, as I said in reply to your comment on my post, I totally agree that we can’t rely on the embedded journalist to act against his self-interest (i.e. his job). But at the same time, let’s not romanticize the “strong, free and independent press” of the past century. There are very few Pentagon Papers moments in the press, and I have heard far too many stories of newspapers kowtowing to influential advertisers and powerful potential sources to swallow the “free and independent” line without a big grain of salt.

    I believe that there’s going to be a messy middle ground as the traditional media–a voracious for-profit enterprise funded by monopoly profits–gives way to a smaller, more distributed, more local, and much more independent press takes its place. One that’s a lot more like the Fourth Estate of *two* centuries ago, and one that uses the content that embedded journalists create if and when it makes sense.

    • Bill, I’m embarrassed I called you “Mike” on your own blog. So sorry! Trying to comment in between the dinner and cake for a 4-year-old birthday.

  8. Bill Sledzik says:

    Colin,

    I guess I’m sounding a little absolutist in my position. I’m a PR guy and have been for 35 years. And maybe that’s why I don’t trust a system that gives us too much control over the message. We are what we are: advocates. But as you point out, the 4th Estate of the last two centuries is gone, and we have to be realistic about what will replace it. PR’s role can only increase.

    The simple who-what-when-where-why stories from PR have run for decades now, but I think what Ike is forecasting in his post is an independent media with little or no ability to investigate. That scares me.

    Don’t worry about the name miscue. Truth be known, if I had a 4-year-old, I probably wouldn’t be blogging at all. As a grandpa, I don’t face those challenges anymore. I give you credit for finding the time.

  9. [...] a question asked by Bill Sledzik, associate professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Kent [...]

  10. Eric says:

    Give me a break. I trust The New York Times less than I trust most pr companies. At least I know where they’re coming from. Modern-day journalists have reduced their relevance because they’ve become shills for most left-wing causes. To say the media plays it straight is a joke.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Say what you’d like about the MSM, Eric. I’d sooner trust a seasoned reporter than the spin doctors running the Palin Tea Party or scripting brother Glenn Beck. It’s not a perfect system, the independent media, but it’s a whole lot better than the alternative. Know what I’m sayin’?

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