Bad PR

5/11/19

Michael Marshall's Bad PR blog highlights the pervasiveness of the Public Relations industry in our newspapers and media landscape. Advertising space in national newspapers and on popular news websites is an expensive business. And unless you're prepared to spend huge sums of money it is likely your advert will be missed by many readers or simply scanned over and ignored. A much cheaper alternative is the PR release telling a story that newspapers are happy to print because it grabs readers attention, fills those all important column inches or adds online content; and as an added benefit gets free advertising for the company.

One of the best ways to do this is to commission a "study", often done by polling organisations that pay pollsters a few pence to answer a few loaded questions, or pay a scientist to perform a fairly rudimentary experiment. Get a result that seems interesting and then publish a press release along the lines of "One in three adults have lied about being on a diet due to shame" or "Brits take less than four months to say 'I love you'" or "Christmas shopping can be as stressful as running a MARATHON: Hitting the high street may increase your heart rate by 33%". The format for these stories usually then follows a similar pattern. The first 2-3 paragraphs will give very brief details of the results, often in a hyperbolic style, and the 3rd or 4th para will say: "A study commissioned by - related business here - revealed that...". These examples above were from Cambridge Weight Plan, online dating website eHarmony and online retailer eBay.

Marsh's headlines are much more honest: '“Shopping on the high street is stressful!” says online marketplace' for instance. Once you notice how pervasive the practice is then you realise how much of our news landscape is taken up by companies getting their name in the press at very little cost. Over the past decade, newspapers have massively had to cut staffing levels, putting reporters and content writers under increasing pressure. PR press releases like these are easily grabbed from newswires to help fill content. The PR companies even write the story for them so only minimal formatting is needed. It may seem harmless but it is a good example of how falsehood and misinformation (most of the 'studies' are worthless bunk but they help give a veneer of science) leaches into the public consciousness unopposed.

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