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Without fear or favour | The Australian.

Miriam Cosic writes in The Australian about journalist Nick Davies. He says more than half the news in Britain’s top five newspapers was generated by public relations companies or taken from wire services.

Davies is in Australia to promote his book Flat Earth News.

While this is a great background piece that makes me want to rush out and buy the book – I will look for it this afternoon – it paints a depressing picture of the state of journalism.

I’ve worked in the industry for almost thirty years. I can’t help but agree with Davies’ basic premise that today’s journalists are now expected to do a once-over-lightly job and rock the boat as little as possible.

Blame the large media companies

Davis points the finger of blame at the media corporations. This analysis can’t be separated from the widely reported decline of traditional news media.

Conventional thinking says people are moving away from newspapers, magazines and broadcast news because of the Internet. I believe the audiences would be declining even without the arrival of online news because news audiences are being turned off by the news media.

One aspect of this whole issue that was overlooked in The Australian story is that public relations companies now massively outgun newspapers in terms of personnel, expertise and experience.

This is particularly noticable in New Zealand. Here the newspapers appear to be largely staffed by young reporters in their 20s and early 30s while many of the brightest and best of the older generation are now employed by PR companies.

This post was updated at 20:00 on August 25.

Marketing communications – telling customers about your products and services – has two parts: advertising and publicity.

Advertising is straightforward. You pay money, the media company publishes or broadcasts your message. You control your message and its presentation.

Advertising is a commercial transaction.

Publicity is different

Publicity also costs money – plenty of businesses accept payment for promotional services .

With publicity you don’t usually pay the media to promote your message. And you have no say over timing, placement or presentation.

You can’t even be sure your message will run.

In theory, you get publicity when the story you tell is so compelling journalists and editors fall over themselves to publish it. Remember their idea of compelling isn’t the same as yours.

Editors need to give readers, viewers or listeners the hottest news, up-to-date information, the most relevant background features and the best stories. They also look for entertaining material to brighten their pages. They can be grumpy.

Editors are not your sales team

Editors don’t care whether their stories help you or your business if they are doing their job properly.

There are publications where this doesn’t apply.

A common misunderstanding about publicity is a press release is best way to get it. This is a pre-written version of the story you’d like to see in print. Press releases are usually written in a highly stylised format, containing the basic facts together with background.

Press releases can work. Usually they don’t.

Many go straight into the bin. And rightly so. That’s the place for rubbish. Press releases mainly exist because clients like them – they create an aura of useful media activity.

Press releases just part of the mix

Some of the best communications professionals – they may call themselves public relations consultants, press agents or something posh sounding like ‘media consul’ – will tell you press releases are only one, not particularly useful, strategy and account for a tiny fraction of their work.

We look at the press release mechanics elsewhere.

Publicity involves enticing the media to write or broadcast information about your company, product or services because you have something new, important, exciting or otherwise interesting to say.

The best way to do this is to call a journalist and tell them, quickly and concisely, just what your story is and why it may interest their readers. Like everything else in business, this is about forming the right relationships.

Media training

If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, get some media training or hire a press agent to call on your behalf. Good public relations professionals know who to call and how to pitch stories in a way that makes them more interesting to journalists or editors. They introduce you to the right people, set up face-to-face meetings or organise phone interviews and help you prepare for these.

Occasionally when you have something important to announce, you may want to hold a formal press conference or maybe host a less formal gathering of journalists for morning tea, lunch or afternoon cocktails. This kind of event works best when used sparingly, it isn’t always the best way of telling a story, but it is a great way to make or maintain contact.

It is not the best first impression when afternoon mail starts with the words: “good morning”.

On the upside “good morning” means the sender has, at least, thought about manners. They just haven’t thought enough.

On that level Good morning is better than “Oi you!” or worse.

And yes, it’s a more original start than the standard “Hi Bill”. Or “Dear Mr Bennett”. Some variation is welcome.

But not too often.

The problem is “good morning” mails often don’t arrive in the morning. Not even when the writer clicks their send button mail in the morning.

Australians forget time zones

A lot of mail in New Zealand comes from Australia which is usually two or more hours behind New Zealand. When the Bruces and Shelias in Sydney are still boiling billy cans for the day’s first brew, we are ready for lunch.

Public relations people send a lot of the offending messages.

When an Aussie PR sends a “good morning” that arrives late afternoon, it says they only care about journalists in their own country.

The chances are that the “good morning” message is just a bulk press release sent out to dozens of people in Australia and New Zealand.

The subtle, unvoiced subtext of such a message is “we’re happy to take money off of our clients to service New Zealand media, but can’t make an effort to do the best job.”

The key point is that senders have no control over when readers see their mail. This make it presumptuous to start a message that way even when you’re in the same time zone as the reader.

You’ll still be polite or friendly if you start the mail with hi or hello followed by the person’s name.