The politics of press coverage

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With the ongoing Newcastle United scandal currently taking up column inches in B2B media publications, here at Smoking Gun PR we’ve been considering the etiquette and relationship between brands and editorial outlets. It’s never been smooth sailing for anyone involved, but given the state of the nation’s journalistic organisations the sea is becoming far rougher.
If you missed the story then consider this a quick re-cap. Newcastle United issued a ban on local publications covering games and press conferences following less than flattering reports relating to owner Mike Ashley. This has now been followed by a new proposition to press, offering interviews with players and management in return for payment. Which, for all perspectives, is out of order considering newspapers and magazines offer a great way for any business- whether it’s a bank or sporting entity- to keep the public informed.
So this is relatively cut and dry, but it brought to mind a much more complex aspect of the overall situation. Because although asking for cash in exchange for responses to questions is at best greedy, at worst unethical, we can also say that the reverse can be just as problematic. With strained budgets across all media outlets there is less and less money available to fund independent endeavours, from travel commissions to restaurant reviews. The result means an increasing expectation for journalist’s to be given complimentary treatment, yet this carries a huge weight of expectation that contradicts the essence of objective editorial content.
To simplify, if a writer is sent on a trip paid for by the host, organised by the public relations team (either in house or external), then the organisation picking up the tab doesn’t expect criticism. Technically speaking, it’s far from cricket to accept gifts in return for running positive coverage- press is not the same as PR. However, when it actually boils down to the nitty gritty this is fast becoming the norm.
No contracts are signed stating the excursion is being provided in exchange for kind words, but it takes a very gutsy writer to accept freebies and then deliver a truthful critique. In the bad old good old days press trips and toll-free meals were still present and correct, but titles also had the means to fund this kind of activity themselves. Unfortunately, as cash flow becomes tighter, which it inevitably will do, then the reliance on complimentary treatment will become greater.
To make matter worse, when a firm knows they are looking after a journalist, who is there to report back to the public on ‘the way things are’, it’s highly unlikely they will be given anything but five star service, even if ‘ordinary’ people are only ever provided with a three star equivalent. In short then, even when picking up the cheque, it’s vital to respect why the press are there in the first place so as to avoid undermining the entire industry even further than it already has been. Once the public loses faith in the press as a reference tool with which to gain a real insight then realistically speaking when positive coverage does run, and is genuinely deserving, it will be rendered near-pointless because readers no longer trust what they are being told.