Posted by Tom Foremski - January 12, 2010
In part I of "The Killer Pitch" I raised the possibility of PR agencies developing the ability to drive lots of traffic to specific news stories.
In some ways, there is nothing new here. The best pitch is one that journalists recognize will be a hot story. And PR people know this and they try to craft a pitch that has the potential to be a hit.
In this way, PR people and journalists work towards the same goal -- a widely read news story that is fair and accurate.
Problems arise however, if PR agencies can develop the means to drive additional traffic to news stories that they select. It's obvious that they would not reward news stories that they disagree with.
Could PR agencies develop the ability to reliably drive traffic to specific stories?
PR agencies could help publishers promote stories on Digg, Stumbleupon, Reddit, etc. There is no guarantee with this method but it is something that journalists often don't have the time to do themselves. I don't see publishers objecting to help in promoting their publications. Over time, reporters might favor working with PR agencies that provide such additional services.
Developing an ability to always be able to drive traffic is possible but I don't yet see any PR agencies with that capability -- at least not yet. However, since it is possible then it will be done, because this brings lots of advantages: in relations with journalists, and with clients.
How would readers know that a particular news story benefited from a traffic boost by a PR agency?
They wouldn't know, in the same way that readers don't know what went into researching and writing a news story; the PR agencies that were involved; which people the journalist interviewed and what was said in those interviews; and what wasn't used in the final story.
Would it be ethical for PR agencies to drive traffic to news stories?
Yes. That's what they have been hired to do, that is what they agreed to do: to bring attention to their clients.
Could such practices influence news coverage by the news media?
Yes. But that already happens. News organizations are influenced by PR all the time -- that's what PR firms are hired to do.
What it comes down to is this: the news media is influenced by commercial interests. While this has always been the case, today there are new ways to spend money to influence the news media that people see, and one of those methods is to drive traffic to select news stories.
The job of a journalist has always been one of trying to sort through many biased information sources and end up with a fair and accurate story. Journalists know that PR firms are biased and that's OK because they take that bias into consideration, they know how to deal with the information they receive, what to use and what to leave behind. That's what quality journalism is all about. That's the role of a gatekeeper.
But if certain news stories can rise to prominence because of manipulation by PR agencies -- then the important role of the journalist, as society's gatekeeper, becomes seriously compromised. That's not good for government.
Software engineers have a saying: garbage in, garbage out. If we have a biased media we will be less able to make good decisions. And we have a lot of important decisions to make: about the economy, energy, education, elders, ethics ... and those are just the 'e's.
Will companies and self-interest groups be able to use the media to exert more influence? Will PR agencies be able to develop new techniques of media influence that will aid their clients?
The answer to both questions has to be yes.
And the ability of the media to resist and fight back against new tactics of manipulation is severely weakened because of the massive disruption happening within the entire media sector. It's an interesting situation.
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