When public relations plays hide-and-seek with journalism

Author: Odoobo C. Bichachi is the Nation Media Group (NMG)-Uganda public editor. PHOTO/FILE.

What you need to know:

  • ...many editors spend a lot of energy ensuring very few public relations stories – if any – escape through the gate-keeping sieve as “news”...

Journalism and public relations have always been uneasy bedfellows. Journalists need public relations practitioners to obtain and cross-check information for news stories. Public relations (PR) people on the other hand need journalists to push or clean their brands.

While both recognise this symbiotic relationship, both are shy to openly acknowledge it, rightly so, because it can potentially diminish public trust in news stories hurting both as well as disadvantage news consumers. 

Consumers of news – whether newspapers, television, radio or online – are therefore left to themselves to determine whether a story they are consuming is driven by journalism or public relations or both, and what to make of it.

This is the reason many editors spend a lot of energy ensuring very few public relations stories – if any – escape through the gate-keeping sieve as “news” while conversely, PR practitioners spend all their time plotting how to bypass these gate-keeping processes and plant “news”. It is a hide and seek game!

Indeed NMG Editorial Policy Guidelines has a specific provision on handling PR materials. It states:

“Public relations material, both written and pictorial, must be used judiciously. This should not, however, prevent the use of stills in picture reviews, company results and other press releases where such material concerns topics of genuine public interest.  All stories based on PR material so used will, however, be re-written in the news style of the Group, any self-indulgence removed and its inclusions judged solely on its news value. Special care will be taken, however, not to alter or misrepresent the essential factual content of the PR communication.”

I come to this touchy subject after a reader prompted me to comment about the story titled “Jet fuel supplier says airport fuel fiasco didn’t affect business” (Daily Monitor of August 11). It was a late, if not a clean-up, reaction to a series of stories; “Uganda Airlines plane runs out of fuel in Tanzania” and “Uganda Airlines ‘exiting’ deal with Dubai firm over airport fuel fiasco” –  both carried by various local and regional media in July, including NMG platforms.

So was it a PR story? Michael L. Turney, professor emeritus of communication at Northern Kentucky University – USA, in his article titled: “Spotting public relations efforts in the news” shares a number of clues news consumers may use to tell who is pushing the story. One of them is: “A story which quotes only one or two people but which includes unusually long quotes, especially ‘warm and fuzzy’, vapid, or up-beat and glowing ones, might have originated as a [press] release.”

So back to the reader’s complaint, the said story relied on a press release by fuel supplier MixJet which purported to express Uganda Airline’s happiness with its services. Uganda Airlines itself does not speak in the story beyond the infamous “not available for comment” and an old quote from the permanent secretary of Ministry of Works as part of background.

While it was legitimate to hear the side of the company that caused Uganda Airlines to “run out of fuel”, the treatment of the story weighed in favour of public relations over journalism. 

Readers have your say

Namara Naome Baketunga: Refer to your column last week about lack of local news. We have big stories especially now with new districts. People in new districts have a lot of questions and experiences to share. I wish we can be guided and we provide you with stories to publish. 

Michael J. Ssali: The Covid-19 pandemic period has been full of newsworthy events, like the way people that break lockdown and SOPs regulations in various towns of the country have been treated. Whenever I watched TV, I only tended to see protesters in Kampala, Masaka, Fort Portal, and a few times in Jinja.

Are there are no lockdown and SOPs violators in Kitgum, Soroti, Lira, Paidha, Gulu Kabale, Mbale and many other such towns. I now think violating lockdown regulations is more in Buganda and a few other parts of the country. That impression could have been created by the selective news reports that I consumed. Is this due to lack of reporters across the country?

Public Editor: To Namara and Ssali, this feedback has been taken right into the newsroom and adds value to what I wrote. Thank you. 

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