Don’t Blame PR for the ‘Hamster Wheel’

Posted by: in Public Relations Practice on September 23, 2010

The talk in the journalism world last week centered around a brilliant piece in the Columbia Journalism Review by Dean Starkman that argued that journalism is being seriously undermined by what he calls the “Hamster Wheel“: the need to produce more and more content, damn the quality. Much of what he says is spot-on, some is hyperbole lacking in context. He cites six dire consequences of the Hamster Wheel, but the one most in need of a response is #3: “The Wheel infantilizes reporters, strengthens P.R.”

The argument is simple, elegant and wrong: “If reporters lack the time to gather, analyze, and reflect on information, then they will have less leverage to confront the institutions on their beat.”

When I got into journalism, after couple of dirt-under-the-fingernails internships and fresh with the no-compromises passion of j-school, I saw PR folks pretty much as Starkman outlined in his piece: as black-hatted purveyors of press releases bent on pushing one single viewpoint, context be damned.

But as I marinated in newsrooms for a while, I began to see things differently. The best PR folks were a unique resource. They were handy with background, were willing to share their Rolodex and always happy to play the devil’s advocate on think pieces. I never forgot who buttered their bread, but they had a useful role to play. When I switched sides 4 years ago, that was the role I sought emulate. It’s not an easy one.

Starkman implies that this is a “time of PR ascendance” because of the ease with which PR professionals can influence the outgunned media. But that’s not the way it looks in the trenches. With more PR pros pitching more information to fewer journalists, the signal-to-noise problem has grown so severe that most reporters just freeze out uninvited contact altogether. Good media relations today is a throwback to a previous generation: pros that have relationships and can deliver perspective can break through; baby-faced flacks with a press release, robotic talking points and a list of e-mail addresses can’t.

PR pros have to be smarter than ever just to keep up with the new information flows. We’re certainly not the gatekeepers of facts now (if we ever were). Background that would have taken weeks to gather when I was a cub reporter can now be done with an afternoon of clicks. Experts are now available, via e-mail, 24/7. The tools to “gather” and “analyze” information have never been more powerful.

Yes, the ranks of PR industry have swelled as new technologies have come online. But the changing news environment has not disrupted the balance between the media and PR. If anything, it has forced media relations experts to be better informed, quicker and more transparent. If that’s somehow making the “Hamster Wheel” worse, I can’t see it from here.

The talk in the journalism world last week centered around a brilliant piece in the Columbia Journalism Review by Dean Starkman that argued that journalism is being seriously undermined by what he calls the “Hamster Wheel”: the need to produce more and more content, damn the quality. Much of what he says is spot-on, some is hyperbole lacking in context. He cites six dire consequences of the Hamster Wheel, but the one most in need of a response is #3: “The Wheel infantilizes reporters, strengthens P.R.”

The argument is simple, elegant and wrong: “If reporters lack the time to gather, analyze, and reflect on information, then they will have less leverage to confront the institutions on their beat.”

When I got into journalism, after couple of dirt-under-the-fingernails internships and fresh with the no-compromises passion of j-school, I saw PR folks pretty much as Starkman outlined in his piece: as black-hatted purveyors of press releases bent on pushing one single viewpoint, context be damned.

But as I marinated in newsrooms for a while, I began to see things differently. The best PR folks were a unique resource. They were handy with background, were willing to share their Rolodex and always happy to play the devil’s advocate on think pieces. I never forgot who buttered their bread, but they had a useful role to play. When I switched sides 4 years ago, that was the role I sought emulate. It’s not an easy one.

Starkman implies that this is a “time of PR ascendance” because of the ease with which PR professionals can influence the outgunned media. But that’s not the way it looks in the trenches. With more PR pros pitching more information to fewer journalists, the signal-to-noise problem has grown so severe that most reporters just freeze out uninvited contact altogether. Good media relations today is a throwback to a previous generation: pros that have relationships and can deliver perspective can break through; baby-faced flacks with a press release, robotic talking points and a list of e-mail addresses can’t.

PR pros have to be smarter than ever just to keep up with the new information flows. We’re certainly not the gatekeepers of facts now (if we ever were). Background that would have taken weeks to gather when I was a cub reporter can now be done with an afternoon of clicks. Experts are now available, via e-mail, 24/7. The tools to “gather” and “analyze” information have never been more powerful.

Yes, the ranks of PR industry have swelled as new technologies have come online. But the changing news environment has not disrupted the balance between the media and PR. If anything, it has forced media relations experts to be better informed, quicker and more transparent. If that’s somehow making the “Hamster Wheel” worse, I can’t see it from here.

By: Brian Reid

Brian Reid is a director at WCG in the product group, where he specializes in media. He is a former journalist who believes content really is king.

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  1. How 75 Clinical Studies a Day is Disrupting Journalism … and PR | Common Sense linked to this post on September 30, 2010

    [...] few journalists chasing too many stories with too much fluff. A week ago, I argued that CJR’s Dean Starkman was wrong to blame public relations for [...]

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