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A gambling company commenting on hayfever: Is this a new low for local journalism?

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Is the British press engaged in a race to the bottom? Damian Summers at Impression says the signs are ominous – but PR has a role to play too.

One of the central goals of PR is simple: create relevant news that resonates with your target audience and so benefits your brand. Good storytelling helps, but turning it into good PR requires a variety of tactics, and when done well it can build brand, trust and drive commercial impact.

In recent years, PR has been leveraged to support search engine visibility goals, a logical progression of the discipline when we consider where PR sits within the modern customer journey. For PR teams, this is another string to the bow of benefits it can offer as a service – a powerful tool within the marketing mix that can promise to drive bottom-line impact and influence consumer perceptions.

The relationship between PRs and journalists remains symbiotic: PRs need journalists and their platforms for coverage, and journalists need PRs for some stories and access to resources. Let’s not forget this in turn drives revenue through readership and engagement.

The importance of local journalism

Part of what a journalist does is acts as a gatekeeper to their publication. This responsibility cannot be understated if their readers are to view a publication’s news as a trusted source of information. Fact-checking, ensuring accuracy, and critically reviewing sources are all important elements of this role.

But in the past couple of years, we’ve seen the impact of growing revenue pressures in local news, leading to significant job cuts. As publications pivot and change direction to stay profitable, we’re also seeing this gatekeeping slip in places, which impacts readers, journalists, and PRs alike.

A case in point. In March, a news story got under the skin of PRs – and likely journos too. A gambling brand had earned coverage by presenting findings from a university about high pollen spots in the UK this spring. A spokesperson for the brand even commented on the study.

There are a number of issues here. What does gambling have to do with hay fever? There is absolutely no rational reason why a gambling brand would have the authority to comment on the subject. But there’s a wider point about how this story came to be. If a journalist had properly checked and scrutinized the sources, surely this wouldn’t have come into existence in the same current form?

PRs and journalists both need integrity

To my mind, the PR activity leading to this coverage doesn’t fulfill the fundamentals of good PR. It likely, however, ticked off someone’s KPI – but it shouldn’t have. Stories similar to this one exist across the press, and we’ll see PR teams continuing to work to put them out while it’s a viable way to meet their KPIs.

The bigger issue though is that the journalist should have closed the metaphorical gates to this story, and they didn’t. Meanwhile, large local news publishers fight to remain credible and trusted, capturing readers and interactions to drive revenue. But publishing stories with unfounded, irrelevant sources like this from PRs directly works to undermine the goal of good journalism. Journalists should be aware of the immediate impact of what they cover and the secondary benefits that coverage has on their business.

There’ll always be PRs and marketers who forgo their responsibility to the general public in exchange for a quick payday. But journalists shouldn’t do this. When journalists give up their responsibility for quick cash, they lose, and they chip away at the trust of their readership and their publication’s revenue. It’s a race to the bottom.

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