COVID-19 looks set to have an unhealthy impact on journalism and PR

A few things I’ve noticed in the past couple of weeks have raised my eyebrows. A client, with a regular column in a trade publication, was emailed by a colleague to say that our point of contact has been made redundant. Sadly, they’re not the first, and certainly won’t be the last journalist to lose their job as a result of Covid-19. Times are tough and it’s hard not to ignore stories about job cuts across newsrooms.

In a world where there are fewer journalists, or certainly more with less experience, it does raise a question to how stories will be put together in future.

The truth is, even right now we can see how journalism works – and it’s not always for good. Most PR agencies subscribe to services or follow journalists on social media that are looking for experts, case studies and statistics, the so called #journorequest. I’ve never had a problem with this because quite often, it brings the story to life. If you’re writing a story about a business that changed its approach during Covid-19, then it’s quite good to add a bit of colour and hear from the food wholesaler that began selling directly to customers. The journalist is happy and so is the client. Job done, as such. 

What’s the problem then? Reader stories are basic parts of journalism. A good number of campaigns have been built on correspondence with journalists. You only need to look at some of the good work on pension inequality or obtaining drug treatment on the NHS. All have led to policy change. 

But what happens when the relationship isn’t just between the reader and editor? What happens when you cast the net out to anyone? 

A journalist reached out to me asking for a client’s response to what turned out to be ‘research’ that painted a negative picture and pointed the finger at the client. I happen to get on well with this journalist and provided data to show that the research was wrong and indeed the plaintiffs were somewhat unholy themselves. Latterly, the same journalist was tweeting for case studies and commentary. In the end, they decided to go against our rebuttal and print something anyway.  

It was a pretty shoddy story in truth. The numbers were wrong, the case study’s argument was actually quite easy to unpick and it was littered with commentary from companies (sourced via a PR request system) with little stake in the wider argument. It was a bit of a mess reading it knowing the context, but would the reader think the same? 

Thankfully, the client saw it for what it was worth. The same story was picked up using the same research, this time from a freelancer (with no background in covering this issue). Again, if they’d asked for a response or invited me to look at the data, I could have given them a better steer. 

There was another time when I had to deal with a journalist writing a story based on tweets claiming that a bank was down, when it wasn’t, there just happened to be a high volume of calls at the contact centre. The story then became customers think bank is down, but it’s not. Apparently they thought it was doing us a favour, when to most people, it wasn’t a story to start with.  

I’m not naïve to criticise the journalist (though there are times when I’d question the merits of a story), there are fewer of them, they’re churning out stories on quite technical issues that can end up being rushed. You often feel like the villain asking for corrections, but in the end if you have thousands of eyes reading a story, then all the better for getting it right. 

This is also not a suggestion that no one should be free from scrutiny or criticism. That would be daft. However, at the same time, what is one meant to think when a journalist is keen to do a story because they’re either reliant on poor PR data or a Twitter case study that are entirely dubious?

Our appetite for news is certainly not diminishing, but if there are fewer staff journalists, (or a shift towards freelancers or generalists), surely this is unhealthy for PR? I now take the view that getting your one good hit in a national is the best approach for clients – there are still publications out there doing well and providing excellent journalism. However, I do worry about the long term, corona appears to be speeding this up. It’s not only about getting coverage and building relationships, but we should see it in the wider interest that journalism does well because otherwise we end up with more stories like the above – which serve no one’s interest. 

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Adam Taylor

Director of Media Relations