News media are the dominant way in which organizations of society disseminate information and persuasion to the general public. Networking, relationship building, and producing works to be published in the media are daily work for most public relations (PR) practitioners. The relation between the PR industry and the news media is therefore of interest for research in both public relations and journalism.
The relation between the groups can be studied from at least two starting points. One is functional and instrumental, with the aim of improving the knowledge and skill of PR practitioners on how to deal with the press, and is often taught in handbooks. The other is research in social and political science, together with cultural and rhetorical studies, with the purpose of depicting and explaining the relation as well as discussing its implications for society and democracy.
Several researchers argue that a media focus has, in fact, grown in importance to the PR industry, especially pertaining to those active on the scene of policy shaping in the broader sense. Manning (2001) argues that media work has become a more central part of political activity in recent years, in line with Blumler’s earlier findings that publicity advisers, PR experts, and campaign consultants “immerse journalists in what appears to be an increasingly manipulative opinion environment” (Blumler 1990, 104). Other researchers notice an increased interest from commercial groups in strategically mobilizing communicative power and attaining media space.
Though the concept of PR is built on relationship development, this perspective has only recently become central to PR research, which has mostly preferred an organizational and management perspective. Ferguson (1984) proposed that relationships should be the unit for the study of PR and the best way to conceptualize it. Some researchers have formulated models for public relationships management – models exploring relations with all types of publics and stakeholders, not only the media (Broom et al. 2000; Ledingham & Bruning 2000; Jahansoozi 2006).
One can easily see two levels of relationships, organizational and interpersonal relations. In the first case, organizations interact, as when a company sends a press release in its name to the media. In most cases and in everyday practice, the relations are likely to be mostly found at the interpersonal level, where, for example, a PR practitioner makes contact with a journalist or editor to promote a new idea. In the developing PR theory, media relations can best be understood through research in interpersonal or relational communication (Wood 2000). Ledingham and Bruning (2000) present another typology with three types of relationships: interpersonal, professional, and community relations.
Most relations between the two groups result from actions taken by different interest groups with the aim of influencing the media to publish certain promotional items as news. Theories and concepts relevant to this fact are therefore interesting when studying and analyzing the PR–media relationship.
Agenda-building theory was developed by Cobb and Elder in 1972, but became the foundation of agenda-setting theory the same year (McCombs & Shaw 1972). While the agenda-setting theory refers to the question of how the media direct public awareness and debate, agenda-building theory discusses the question of where the agenda really is initiated – whether it is constructed by the media or earlier, by actors as political and organizational leaders. Weaver and Elliot (1985) formulated this question in more concrete words by asking who sets the agenda for the media, meaning that “it is not quite accurate to speak of the press ‘setting’ agendas if it is mainly passing on priorities set by other actors and institutions in society” (Weaver & Elliot 1985, 87). Recently, McCombs (2004) incorporated this thinking into his theory, when he discussed a third agenda level, other agendas (besides the media and public agendas), advanced by organizations, political campaigners, and PR professionals. Media agenda has become a dependent variable instead of the earlier independent variable (McCombs 2004, 98). Other researchers argue that the agenda is being set in a dynamic process where interest groups, actors, the media, and the public influence and are influenced by each other.
The influence toward the media from different interest groups and PR agents appears in many different shapes in daily life. It involves anything from traditional press conferences and press releases to various ways of more or less successful long-term agenda-setting-related activities. Among other things, strategies for controlling the news agenda are based on producing and serving the media with material that promotes the instrumental purposes of the senders’ interests. This type of media influence and strategies for controlling the news agenda are today often referred to by the concept news management (Pfetsch 1998).
Meanwhile, news material from sources outside the media may also be seen as a contribution to journalistic work and as a way of cutting editorial costs. Observations in line with that point of view have made way for the theory of information subsidy, meaning “efforts by policy actors to increase the consumption of persuasive messages by reducing their costs,” in the words of Gandy (1992, 142).
Several reasons can be traced for the fact that the relations between the PR industry and the media and between PR actors and journalists are rather poorly researched, except for studies with the purpose of education on “how to do” the PR profession best. One reason is that PR is a relatively new research field, and another, as mentioned above, is that the research has addressed organizational and managerial questions.
However, the media have in many studies been analyzed in relation to other objects and phenomenon. There is, for example, extensive research about the relation between the media and institutional representatives such as politicians and authority leaders.
In recent years, studies of the relations between PR and the media have been published, most of them by European researchers and some of them with a societal/political and critical perspective.
Measurement And Findings
Researchers in the field of PR have applied several different methods in the study of the relations between PR and their publics. Surveys have been constructed to measure relations with publics by featuring openness, trust, involvement, investment, commitment, satisfaction, and mutual control. Other studies have been conducted through personal interviews with PR practitioners and journalists, often together with document analysis. Studies of the results and effects of relationship have applied content analysis to determine what the media have published; sometimes studies compare what the PR industry and other sources have delivered to the media and what the media publish.
Even though the PR–media relation is an underdeveloped research area, studies show that the two groups often establish close relations in order to fulfill a mutual interest (Davis 2002; Larsson 2005). The reason is to be found in the need for both parts in their occupational behavior and task fulfillment – the demand to get promotion and instrumental information published on the one (organizational) hand, and the need to get news material to fill the news pages and programs on the other. A traditional exchange theory can thus be seen to explain the relation phenomenon, as well as a negotiating theory. The two parts are mutually dependent.
The situation is similar to what research has found about the relation between the media and institutional representatives such as politicians and government leaders (Sigal 1973; Gans 1979; Ericson et al. 1989). Here the relation is described as symbiotic, with Gans’ metaphor “it takes two to tango” as the most well-known illustration. Some even talk about a love–hate relationship (Hess 1981).
The political sphere and official institutions are those organizations giving most attendance to the news desks and getting most publicity, in line with the media’s obligation to inform in a democratic society. Several studies show at the same time that it is more difficult for the business and private company sector to achieve publicity as news in the media, except for business and trade media. On the other hand, some researchers claim that business in recent times has increased not only its ambitions but also succeeded in getting more publicity. One reason, discussed in a Swedish study, is that this sector seeks to give its promotional material a broader political and cultural approach and character, rather than being single-product launching and marketing (so editors accept it more easily without classing it as “text advertising”), as for example when a medicine company and its PR consultants inform about how to cure a disease instead of presenting a new medicine. This study also reveals at least two differences compared to the politicians/institutional–media relation. One is that the contact and relation building between the PR industry and the media is more one-sided, with the former as the active part. The other is that the relation is to a much lesser degree characterized by direct personal contact and is executed more via mail and telephone contacts (Larsson 2005, 2006).
Several studies have shown that a reasonably large proportion of published articles originates from external sources – in fact, most of the studies conducted show that more than half of the published articles studied stem from material originating from outside sources (for an overview, see Cameron et al. 1997).
The theory of information subsidy has, according to several scholars, increased its relevance to everyday journalism reality as a consequence of the financial and personnel cutbacks many news organizations have undergone lately. Some analysts claim that this type of contact and exchange has forced journalism to become increasingly dependent on, and more easily affected by, outside influences – a transformation of the professional conduct that has resulted in a more alienated journalism (Blumler & Gurevitch 1995; Bennett & Manheim 2001). According to Davis (2002), the cutbacks are one explanation of the fact that PR practitioners have come to strongly influence today’s news agenda. He argues that the material they present has become extremely successful in passing itself off as “real news,” and thereby, to a great extent, PR people have “worked to erode the autonomy of journalists at the micro level” (Davis 2002, 172). Other researchers follow this line:
what passes for news of politics is often an inextricable mixture of messages from different sources. Advertising, PR, reports of opinion polls, and propaganda become mixed up in the news product along with facts and editorial opinions . . . It certainly tends to undermine any simple faith in the reliability and independence of news. (McQuail et al. 1998, 253)
The view of media professionals as manipulated by representatives of the PR industry leads to questions about the media’s position as a fourth estate. The media’s role as a public function in this regard might be discussed as a consequence of the activities conducted by, among others, PR practitioners: “the liberal description of the fourth estate media, based on an image of independent autonomous journalists seeking out news, has been severely undermined” (Davis 2002, 173). In accordance, Street reasons that “journalists are the lapdogs of partial interests, not the watchdogs of the public interest” (Street 2001, 146). Contrary to this view, McNair (2000) argues that editorial staff are fully capable of evaluating and disregarding material sent to them by the PR industry. The academic debate about the implications for society of the relationship between the PR industry and the media will certainly continue.
- Bennett, W. L., & Manheim, J. B. (2001). The big spin: Strategic communication and the transformation of pluralist democracy. In W. L. Bennett & R. M. Entman (eds.), Mediated politics: Communication in the future of democracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 279 –289.
- Blumler, J. (1990). Elections, the media and the modern publicity process. In M. Ferguson (ed.), Public communication: The new imperatives. London: Sage, pp. 101–113.
- Blumler, J., & Gurevitch, M. (1995). The crisis of public communication. London: Routledge.
- Broom, G., Casey, S., & Richey, J. (2000). Toward a concept and theory of organization–public relationships. Journal of Public Relations Research, 9(2), 83 – 98.
- Cameron, G., Sallot, L., & Curtin, P. (1997). Public relations and the production of news: A critical review and theoretical framework. In B. R. Burleson (ed.), Communication yearbook 20. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 111–155.
- Cobb, R., & Elder, C. (1972). Participation in American politics: The dynamics of agenda-building. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Davis, A. (2002). Public relations democracy: Public relations, politics and the mass media in Britain. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
- Ericson, R. V., Baranek, P. M., & Chan, J. B. L. (1989). Negotiating control: A study of news sources. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
- Ferguson, M. (1984). Building theory in public relations: Interorganizational relationships. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Gainesville, FL.
- Gandy, O. (1992). Public relations and public policy: The structuration of dominance in the information age. In E. Toth & R. Heath (eds.), Rhetorical and critical approaches to public relations. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 131–164.
- Gans, H. (1979). Deciding what’s news: A study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time. New York: Pantheon.
- Hess, S. (1981). The Washington reporters. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.
- Jahansoozi, J. (2006). Relationships, transparency, and evaluation: The implications for public relations. In J. L’Etang & M. Pieczka (eds.), Public relations: Critical debates and contemporary practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 61– 92.
- Larsson, L. (2005). Opinionsmakarna [The opinion makers]. Lund: Studentlitteratusr.
- Larsson, L. (2006). Public relations and democracy: A Swedish perspective. In J. L’Etang & M. Pieczka (eds.), Public relations: Critical debates and contemporary practice. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 123 –142.
- Ledingham, J., & Bruning, S. (2000). Public relations as relationships management. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Manning, P. (2001). News and news sources: A critical introduction. London: Sage.
- McCombs, M. (2004). Setting the agenda: The mass media and public opinion. Cambridge: Polity.
- McCombs, M., & Shaw, D. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media. Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176 –187.
- McNair, B. (2000). Journalism and democracy. London: Routledge.
- McQuail, D., Graber, D., & Norris, P. (1998). Conclusions: Challenges for public policy. In D. Graber, D. McQuail, & P. Norris (eds.), The politics of news, the news of politics. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, pp. 251–258.
- Pfetsch, B. (1998). Government news management. In D. Graber, D. McQuail, & P. Norris (eds.), The politics of news, the news of politics. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, pp. 70 – 93.
- Sigal, L. (1973). Reporters and officials: The organization and politics of news-making. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath.
- Street, J. (2001). Mass media, politics and democracy. London: Palgrave.
- Weaver, D., & Elliott, S. N. (1985). Who sets the agenda for the media? A study of local agendabuilding. Journalism Quarterly, 62, 87– 94.
- Wood, J. (2000). Relational communication. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.