A new website was recently launched by The Media Standards Trust, designed to highlight articles in the press and online which are simply recycled press releases without any added journalism. Churnalism.com allows people to input text and highlights where it has appeared in the press un-moderated. Some of the results are rather surprising.
As an exercise by the Trust to support the independence of news and highlight lazy journalism it is entirely a Good Thing. That it has a use at all is a reflection of the shrinking of staff and resources in newsrooms and the growth of PR.
However, it does encourage a dated view of PR as a Bad Thing – that PR and press releases must be a toxic influence on the pure well of journalism. The truth is rather different. There is of course Good PR and Bad PR just as there is Good Journalism and Bad Journalism. So far so obvious.
Good PR is less about spin and cover ups and more about advocacy and transparency- from which some news organisations could learn. I’m asked by old colleagues, “So what terrible deeds have you had to cover up then?”. The truth of course is that “covering-up” or deceit is the worst advice to offer anyone, with a high probablilty of discovery and consequent reputational damage proven time and again. If anyone has something that needs covering up they don’t have a communications issue – they have a business issue. And spin or deceit corrodes the trust and relationships on which influence is built.
When we advise companies on how to present their own content we ensure their business interests are transparent, and in showcasing their expertise they offer content of real value to the public. If it isn’t of genuine interest, it won’t engage or be effective. The professional expertise resident in companies and organisations is among the most trusted sources of information in the new digital media landscape. And if the criticism is that corporate content is unlikely to to be critical of its parent – the same is also true of most news organisations.
You will look long and hard to find much coverage of the phone hacking scandal in any News International paper. Or many pro-European Union stories in the Daily Mail. Those reporters are not paid to write those stories. Equally, Fox News will not offer much criticism of the Republicans, Al Jazeera is unlikely to report negatively about Qatar or Russia Today to investigate corruption in Russian politics. They all have positions and agendas – often far from openly declared.
If Churnalism.Com helps identify what can be trusted, lets people better understand what they are reading, and makes news organisations reflect on their own (lack of) transparency, good luck to it.