Public relations


PoynterVision: Transitioning from newspapers to corporate communications

After working for 27 years in newspapers, Butch Ward, senior faculty and former managing director at Poynter, left his final newspaper post at The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2001. Eight months later, Ward joined the Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia as the vice president for corporate and public affairs, putting him “on the other side of the wall” with journalists. Watch the video to hear how Ward navigated the transition.

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Computer keyboard keys used CTRL, C and V for copy and paste. (Depositphotos)

Getting digital attribution right, Part 1

Control+C, Control+V.

These two simple keystrokes — copy, paste — have created a culture that makes it easy for online publishers to share others’ content and use it in their own work. Much of this sharing and reuse is done appropriately, but sometimes the way a work is credited may not meet traditional standards for attribution.

Most people agree on a definition of plagiarism: It’s a verbatim republication of work that was originally published elsewhere, without clear attribution to the original publication. But ask how to apply that definition to practices and things get murky. Some say any use of more than seven words should be attributed. Others say attribution becomes necessary when more than two sentences are used. Applying that definition to the online publishing world introduces even more gray areas.

The Poynter Institute has written about attribution-related topics frequently in recent years. Those efforts have led to lively discussions, in part because there are new ways to give credit when using another’s work besides the traditional and widely accepted quotation marks. You can offset another’s work in a blockquote, link to the original source, mention someone on a social-media post, or use tools that share the original post on a social network. Which of these methods are sufficient in properly crediting the original content? That’s where views vary and conversations can turn heated.

The PR question

Here’s another wrinkle for publishers trying to determine what content requires attribution: Corporate-communicators and public-relations practitioners widely distribute releases and official statements that come complete with facts and quotes. Those releases are often written by people who used to work for news organizations. And the PR practitioners want their work republished.

Some newsrooms struggling with fewer resources and more pressure to publish frequently use this PR material verbatim, and without attribution. That fits the definition of plagiarism, but raises a key question: Is it plagiarism if the original source consents to the republication and finds attribution unnecessary?

In July 2011, the Kansas City Star fired columnist Steve Penn for using content from press releases in his columns without attribution, declaring that he was fired for “using material that wasn’t his and representing it as his own.”

Penn later sued the Star’s owner, McClatchy Newspapers, for defamation of character. In his complaint, he claimed the Star’s accusations of plagiarism were false and resulted in “damage to his reputation and a loss of business standing … including lost job opportunities.”

Penn said that such attribution hadn’t been required in his previous experience and training at the Star, and therefore he would occasionally use such releases unattributed, with the knowledge of his editors.

In the complaint, Penn also said: “The widespread practice in journalism is to treat such press releases as having been voluntarily released by their authors into the flow of news with the intention that the release will be reprinted or published, and preferably with no or minimal editing.”

Penn’s statements highlight an issue online publishers are often unclear about: Now that organizations have the ability to publish content directly, without the press as a middleman, how should journalists use and attribute information that comes from an official source via press release, a prepared statement, an official social-media account or some other widely distributed avenue?

Attributing a quote or fact, even when it comes from an official source, gives the audience more context about that information and how it was acquired by the writer. “It tells readers how we know what we know,” said Steve Buttry, Digital First Media’s digital transformation editor, in his blog post “You can quote me on that: Advice on attribution for journalists.”

Gerard Corbett, 2012 chair and CEO for the Public Relations Society of America, said in a blog post that attribution is “recommended” when a quote is reused or facts or figures are cited, but added that in general, “PRSA views the issuance of a news release as giving implicit consent to re-use and publish the news release’s content.”

In that post, Corbett noted that most public-relations professionals like to see their press releases published in print: “After all, those words found their way into the paper through a meticulous and often grueling process of drafting, editing, re-drafting, reviewing and approving, all intended to present a company’s or client’s news in the proper light. What better way to insure a story’s accuracy than to pull content verbatim from the press release?”

When deciding whether to publish information that comes via an organization’s official release, it’s important to consider the context of the source. The release could reflect a skewed perspective — or, worse, the information may not be accurate. So by publishing information in a release verbatim, you potentially run afoul of the important ethical value of acting independently and holding those who are powerful accountable.

Additionally, disseminating information published in official releases without additional reporting may not allow for diversity of voices in the conversation, especially on social media. When people recirculate the same information, they contribute to the echo chamber of the existing conversation online, instead of adding new knowledge.

Practical guidance

Using a release as a resource instead of as a source can be a great first step in your reporting process. It shouldn’t be the only step, however.

Social-media posts, like official statements, can be a great starting point for reporters. But the information people find via either of these channels should be considered the equivalent of information that comes across a police scanner. You never know what else you might get by interviewing a source on your own instead of by relying on a prepared statement.

What should be included in an editorial policy for how content creators should best use information or quotes from an official source?

An organization should update its existing policies, or if necessary, create a policy for how to use information created by others, including official sources. These policies should identify potential trouble areas and provide clarity on how to avoid practices that could possibly be interpreted as plagiarism.

Example: Arizona State on plagiarism

Arizona State provides guidance to help its students avoid plagiarism, and its informative page could be a useful guide for organizations looking to develop editorial polices regarding such issues.

Below is a summary of ASU’s suggested standards and practices:

1. Explain why these standards are important. ASU begins its policy by articulating the journalistic standards of honesty and accuracy that drive the expectations it has for its students.

2. Identify trouble spots and how to handle them. ASU sets clear standards for what is expected when students copy and paste information from other sources. It recommends that students use quotes when using exact language, paraphrasing the content into original words when possible, and always attributing the entire statement to the original source.

3. Explain when attribution is not required:

  • When information is “commonly known to a majority of the people.”
  • When including background information for stories that is “undisputed factually and is available from a wide variety of reliable sources.”
  • When witnessing something firsthand.

4. Clarify how official statements or releases should be used in reporting, if at all. When using press releases, the ASU guidelines make clear that “rules of attribution apply.”

The guidelines go on to suggest that when you use content from a press release and don’t attribute it, you are misleading the audience into thinking you spoke to a source directly, so full disclosure is necessary. The same goes for content acquired via email or from an organization’s web site.

While the list above isn’t comprehensive, it highlights some of the topics of greatest concern.

When “teachable moments” come up within an organization, especially about an issue not included already in the editorial guidelines, those issues should be discussed and editors should consider revising those guidelines. As with any policy or procedure, custom-tailor the guidelines to the needs of the organization and preserve flexibility by treating them as a work in progress.


The journalist’s role is to seek truth and report it. Social networks and blogging have introduced an abundance of new publishers that create more news and information to share than ever before. And the nature of social media is to share. On Twitter, it’s easier to retweet someone else’s content than it is to create your own. On Facebook, one click lets you share content created by a friend created with your entire network. Because it’s so easy to share, information travels faster than ever before — and the audience is in charge.

With so much new information being published and shared so quickly, the role of journalists is expanding. They’re no longer just storytellers, but also sense-makers who guide audiences to relevant and verifiable information by sharing it with them.

Given this culture shift, online publishers that lack a traditional journalism background will challenge the rules and standards created by journalists for journalists. And that makes it even more important to find a solution to attribution questions. And that solution must recognize the nature and habits of the community without compromising what is ultimately important: truth.

Tomorrow: Getting digital attribution right, Part 2

Ellyn Angelotti is Poynter’s faculty member for digital trends and social media. This case study, the third in an occasional series, was underwritten by a grant from the Stibo Foundation.

Related: 6 ways journalists can use press releases | Seven ways to make your work easy to fact check | How to handle plagiarism | Why journalism should rehabilitate, not excommunicate, fabulists and plagiarists Read more


Cost of a decent press release? $7,500

Business Wired

The requirements for a press release have changed since 2007, when Business Wire estimated a good press release would run $5,000, Fred Godlash writes. “The biggest change, in just 6 years, is the focus from pitching to media outlets to making a press release that is written for everybody.”

In today’s world the press release may be picked up by anyone that will write about your company – not just traditional media outlets, but bloggers, consumer groups, advocacy groups, social media users and more.

A press release today would take about “150 hours of collective work,” including “Hiring staff for keyword optimization, content creation, research, analytics, multimedia, embed codes for tracking, and legal fees for regulatory compliance,” Godlash writes. The total cost, he figures, would be up to $7,500. Read more


Journalists land at Cisco, other brands as ‘corporate reporters’

Digiday | PRNewser
Former Businesweek reporter Steve Wildstrom has worked as a “corporate reporter” for Nvidia and Cisco, Giselle Abramovich writes. Those are people who “who work inside the company and produce media like blog posts, videos, webinars and more,” she writes.

The twist is this path isn’t exactly like public relations. Brands are realizing, to a degree, that if they truly want to be publishers they can’t just have people churning out corporate boilerplate. They’re loosening the reins a bit in a bid to attract actual reporters.

Wildstrom says he was worried how his colleagues would react, but “Cisco’s editorial policy is to forbid its writers from covering the company or its competitors,” Abramovich notes. Wildstrom, who covers tech, tells her he steers clear of pieces he can’t report honestly: “That’s how I have chosen to handle it. If I can’t be honest, I won’t write it,” he says. “Whatever organization you work for, shy of BBC, NPR or PBS, it has commercial motives,” former Ad Age editor and current content strategist Jonah Bloom tells Abramovich. “Ultimately, the consumer is the arbiter of whether your info is credible, useful and has integrity.” Read more

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Public relations association says it’s not plagiarism to use material from press releases

Public Relations Society of America
Gerard Corbett, chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, says using a press release without attribution isn’t plagiarism. Corbett made his point in response to the controversy surrounding Steve Penn, who was fired from The Kansas City Star last July for lifting material from press releases. Penn has since sued the paper.

Attribution is “recommended,” Corbett writes, when journalists use direct quotes, facts or figures from press releases, but not when using dates, times or other general information. He pointed out that public relations professionals like seeing their releases published.

After all, those words found their way onto the paper through a meticulous and often grueling process of drafting, editing, re-drafting, reviewing and approving, all intended to present a company’s or client’s news in the proper light. And what better way to insure a story’s accuracy than to pull content verbatim from the press release?

But while public relations professionals are usually willing to overlook the ethics of a news organization publishing their content without attribution, given the benefits that accrue to their companies or clients as a result (all key messages delivered!), journalists still are facing scrutiny and criticism over the practice.

Here are six ways journalists can troubleshoot the attribution issue and use press releases more effectively. || Related: Washington Post reporter sent drafts to sources Read more


Florida editor responds ‘honestly’ to press release about Ten Commandments

MediaWire memo
Joe Conn, communications director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sent the Dixie County Advocate in Florida a news release objecting to a Ten Commandments display in front of the local courthouse. The editor of the Advocate, a small weekly, responded:

From: Katherine McKinney
Sent: Monday, November 14, 2011 9:45 AM
To: Joe Conn
Subject: Re: Dixie County Commandments Display

Honestly, speaking for the people of Dixie County, we don’t give a damn what you think.

Kathy McKinney
Editor, Dixie County Advocate

Perhaps Conn should have expected the response. In July, the Advocate posted this to its Facebook wall: “ALERT!! STUPID federal judge says Dixie has 30 days to remove the Ten Commandments from the Courthouse…. Post your reactions here for the paper.” Read more


Commercial Appeal: Grocery chain’s PR woman lied to us about sale of Memphis stores

Memphis Commercial Appeal
The Commercial Appeal tells readers today how it was deceived by the Schnucks grocery chain — specifically, communications director Lori Willis, who denied on August 25 that a deal was in the works to sell Schnucks’ Memphis stores to Kroger. “Typically, we would not comment on rumor and speculation, but I will acknowledge these rumors have gotten to a point with the media where I feel I need to tell you there is no truth to those rumors,” Willis told reporter Tom Bailey Jr. “There is no deal regarding any sale or purchase with regard to the Schnucks company.”

Eight days later it was announced that Schnucks was leaving Memphis and selling most of its stores to Kroger. Hundreds of employees will lose their jobs.

“I felt like our brand — our newspaper — was damaged” by Schnucks’ denials, which prompted the paper to stay silent about sale rumors, says business editor Roland Klose. Readers, he says, have accused the paper of being “derelict” by not running rumor stories, but “we felt it would be irresponsible …and it was such an adamant denial” from Willis. Read more


Why journalists don’t always make the best PR pros

Having started my career in journalism, I know all too well the love-hate relationship PR professionals and journalists have with one another. We need each other, except when we don’t. It often seems we coexist just to rant about the other’s follies.

This perception prevailed until the Great Recession. Then, something curious happened: a surge of laid-off journalists began careers in public relations. The U.S. public relations industry grew in revenue by 4 percent in 2008 and 3 percent in 2009, while American newsrooms shed 15 percent of their workforce, losing 8,300 reporters and editors, according to ASNE. Suddenly, PR looked like a promising career for someone with great contacts and the ability to tell compelling stories.

Call it the great journalism-to-PR migration.

What could be wrong with that? At the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), we’re honored to have former journalists join our ranks. In fact, this select group makes up one of our fastest growing member sectors.

But where there is prosperity, concerns often can be found lurking in the shadows. Carol Northrup, a PR professional in California, wrote in the PRSA LinkedIn group that she feels journalists come to PR with a “communication culture of false urgency,” and a lack of appreciation for the “depth and reach of what reputation [management] really entails.”

I echo Northrup’s sentiment. I know many journalists who enter PR with stellar contacts, superb storytelling skills and a well-honed, experienced knowledge of the media business. They know how to sell a story — to their editor.

Yet how many know how to pitch new business to a client? Or perform market research to develop a strategic communications plan that improves awareness of a company’s product or service? Or realize public relations has an industry code of ethics?

The latter came into play in May when USA Today exposed an attempted smear campaign by two Burson-Marsteller employees who happen to be former journalists. In an effort to stir a privacy controversy — on behalf of their client, Facebook — concerning Google’s Social Circle feature, ex-CNBC anchor Jim Goldman and former political columnist John Mercurio violated two of public relations’ core ethical tenets by shielding their client’s identity and circulating misleading, if not false, information. They were roundly excoriated in the media, and PRSA made clear the industry’s stance that smear campaigns have no place in public relations.

How PR and journalism can be similar

Assuming that incident is an anomaly (and I believe it is), let’s consider the parallels between PR and journalism. Both have a mutual interest in communicating clearly with the public. Both require a curiosity for news and an ability to tell a story beyond “just the facts, ma’am.” To be sure, many PR professionals got their start in journalism, or were educated in J-schools. They know and respect the realities and challenges reporters face daily.

Now, as more journalists migrate to public relations, I’m left wondering: Do reporters know and respect the realities and challenges of PR?

New York radio veteran Debra Caruso, now in media relations, put this question into perspective recently in a post. She postulates that “the most successful PR people are those who think and act like reporters.”

She’s not alone: 64 percent of Poynter readers agree, though opinions varied. Davina Gould commented that, “Journalism experience can provide important entry-level training for any PR pro, and not just for those practicing traditional media relations.” Conversely, Leigh Fazzina says she’s seen some journalists fare poorly in public relations because they fail to realize that “media relations is just one of many areas of communications and public relations.”

Caruso bases her claim largely on that latter misperception. She writes that journalists have the news judgment to know what stories to pitch, they write clear, compelling and accurate press releases, they have an appreciation for deadlines and their media connections are impeccable.

All of which are terrific assets … if you’re planning to spend your entire day pitching stories. But that isn’t the reality of modern public relations. Not by a long shot.

How PR and journalism differ

It takes a lot more than contacts to be a successful communicator. For beleaguered journalists looking to start a career in public relations, here are five business-focused tips to keep in mind:

  • Know your audience. The reader is no longer your primary target. In PR, it’s a combination of client, employer and a variety of new audiences that can shift daily. Your storytelling skills will be invaluable, but so will your ability to change directions at a moment’s notice.
  • Understand the short- and long-term business implications of your work. If you work at a PR agency, you will be making hundreds of decisions a day on behalf of clients. Not every decision will be grand, but each will impact the client’s business. A mistake in an article you write may lead to a correction in the next day’s paper; a mistake in a new business pitch could cost your employer hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  • Know, respect and appreciate PR’s ethics code. Like journalism, our profession is based on stringent ethical standards. We expect every professional to uphold those standards.
  • Be an advocate. While advocacy and journalism don’t mix, the former is key to success in public relations. Whether advocating on behalf of a client or employer, you’ll be expected to promote others’ work.
  • Focus on outcomes, not outputs. Most PR professionals are judged on the business value of their work. In other words, how well your work helps an organization grow its business or reach key audiences. This is the reason why publicity is a minor subset of public relations. Publicity itself rarely achieves business goals. Only strategic communications can help businesses succeed over the long run.

These tips won’t guarantee success, but they will help you understand and appreciate the role of modern PR.

Rosanna Fiske is chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America. She is also program director of the Global Strategic Communications master’s program in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University in Miami. Read more


Why journalists make the best PR pros
New York radio veteran Debra Caruso, now in media relations, says “the most successful PR people are those who think and act like reporters.” They have the news judgment to know what stories to pitch; their press releases will be clear, compelling and accurate; they understand deadlines; and they have media connections. Given the choice between someone with a PR degree and someone with newsroom experience, Caruso says, “I would prefer a seasoned journalist.” || Previously: PR industry fills vacuum left by shrinking newsrooms || Take the poll

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‘What qualifies you to be press secretary for the mayor of the third-largest city?’

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
That’s what 55-year-old Chuck Goudie — “one of Chicago’s toughest investigative reporters” — asks 25-year-old Tarrah Cooper, who is Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel‘s press secretary. The 2008 Missouri Journalism School graduate and former MTV intern “is beginning the job of a lifetime, even though she doesn’t have much life time behind her,” writes Goudie. (Cooper worked in the Department of Homeland Security public affairs office before joining Emanuel’s team.) In his column for a suburban Chicago newspaper, Goudie lists the questions he sent Cooper and and never got answered, including:

• Does your youthfulness and lack of experience symbolize what seems to be administration focused on hiring managers under 35?

• Is there a set of written guidelines or protocols that you are working from in dealing with reporters and news organizations?

• How much will you be paid?

• What are your career aspirations?

Goudie also says that “it is interesting that the mayor’s new press secretary felt no inhibition about displaying hundreds of personal photos on her public Facebook page, showing her partying with friends, in beach attire and at a slot machine.”

Reaction in the comments section? Here’s what “old lady 2205″ writes:

Chuck, you sly old fox. What better way to start with the new mayoral administration than to go after the youngest and possibly most vulnerable staff member. This entire investigation must have taken you 45 minutes to an hour, including writing the article.
I really expect better of you.

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