Opinion: Working with a couple of journalists on some story ideas recently it occurred to me they would have no idea what life was like for reporters before Public Relations existed. 

The PR industry has grown exponentially over the past 20 years and has recently received a bit of a public battering. 

Earlier this year, Stuff said the public service was stonewalling answers to journalist’s questions and blamed the growth on the ‘communications industrial complex’. This has been followed with a series called “Things we didn’t learn this week”. 

Then the government agency Waka Kotahi got a hammering for doubling the size of its communications team.   

Back last century when I was a journalist, I don’t recall any PR people. To some that may seem like heaven, but I can assure you when chasing a story and getting facts straight it was hard work.   

In those heady days, we could only hope the bosses of organisations were happy to, or felt compelled to, speak to media. There was no official spokesperson and there was no PR specialist advising them to speak to a journalist (or not). It was easy to be largely ignored and that included the public sector.  

We went out and met people face-to-face to find news. No one was feeding us story ideas or helping with information. 

There was no internet and no email. When you wanted to interview someone, you phoned or went to their office. When you wanted facts there was no giant encyclopaedia in cyberspace. You had contacts who you talked to regularly to find the news.  

In the early 90s, as newsrooms became more like sweatshops and penal rates were wiped off our measly pay packets, some found a growing career opportunity in PR.  

The exponential growth arose when universities and polytechnics cottoned on to the PR industry as a money spinner and created specialist degrees.   

But what has now happened to the PR industry is of real concern.  

PR people used to have the ear of the chief executive and the chair. We gave strategic advice on what and how to communicate, and helped to ensure the bosses didn’t make blunders that cost the company money. 

Our strategies focused on building the reputation of the organisation by creating conversations and relationships with stakeholders – including media – so they had an understanding of our organisation.  

We would talk to journalists about story ideas and help with contacts and background information. We also did our best to answer the hard questions when asked. 

At the same time organisations were seeing the value of PR staff, so as graduates began exploding out of universities, they were employed to help talk to the public directly through websites, social media channels, newsletters and publications.

Public organisations that needed to talk to citizens about tax, social welfare or roads such as Waka Kotahi grew their communications teams to try to satiate the desire for information.   

Journalists love to quote the figure of how many PR people there are compared with journalists, but they’re not all there to manage their media inquiries. 

Politicians and media love to criticise organisations for having too many “gatekeepers or spin doctors”, sending OIAs in what seems to be an annual ritual asking how many PR staff they have and how much has the team grown?   

But I do believe some public organisations have crossed the line. 

At some time, public sector bosses decided to set up specific teams to deal with media inquiries. Journalists were then forced to send queries to a media inbox where they received a short couple of lines from an often nameless spokesperson. The PR person must write the lines and run around getting them signed off by numerous bosses who often reduce the content to something vanilla.  

While it ticks the efficiency box for quick responses, it’s frustrating for journalists who want an interview and it’s a dull and frustrating job for trained PR people.  

It’s gone too far and it’s time to find a happy medium where journalists can still have access to managers and PR people can help facilitate that. 

It’s not the PR people, but those who have set up the so-called PR industrial complex who need to understand that.  

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