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HOW JOURNALISTS IN THE MIDDLE EASTERN ARAB STATES

 PERCEIVE PUBLIC RELATIONS PRACTITIONERS  

NAWAF ALTAMIMI

Journalist & Media Relations Specialist

 London. Sep 2008.

INTRODUCTION:

The relationship between public relations practitioners and journalists has been investigated and questioned over and over since the very beginning of both professions. Sometimes it is described as a love-hate relationship; at other times it is seen as a mixture of dependence and mistrust. For years, journalists have claimed that PR practitioners are unethical, manipulative, one-sided, and deceptive. They have also complained that PR practitioners serve special interests rather than the public.

Studies of the relationship between journalists and public relations practitioners have shown that journalists relegate practitioners to a lower status not only because of perceived poorer job performance and lower ethical conduct, but also because they perceive practitioners to have less honorable intentions (Stegall & Sanders,1986). Baskin and Aronoff (1998) say that journalists have mostly negative attitudes towards public relations professionals. In research they cite, a majority of journalists considered the status of journalism to be superior to the status of public relations.

Research studies suggest that the two most significant factors that journalists dislike about the practice of PR are the volume of information distributed to media outlets and the restrictions on access to people and information (Charles, 2001). Some researchers argue that the problems between journalists and public relations practitioners are technology-based and have more to do with writing than anything else. Marken (1994) explains this point by reporting that: “Nearly every editor and reporter complains that the writing quality of the PR materials has deteriorated to a dangerous level, with many releases lacking clarity, brevity and directness".

On the other hand, PR practitioners were found to be less negative about journalists. In support, Kopenhaver, Martinson, and Ryan (1984) and Stegall and Sanders (1986) found that public relations officials were quite capable of assessing the opinions of journalists. They had a positive view of journalists and were eager to work with them (Cutlip, et al., 1971). However, (Cutlip, et al., 1971) concluded that public relations practitioners were not happy with the tendency of the press to seek negative and sensational information, and they felt the press did not pay sufficient attention to what they viewed as constructive information.

Nevertheless, both journalists and public relations officers find themselves mutually dependent on one another, a situation which demands cooperation, while their divergent control interests cause distrust and opposition. The research conducted by Shin and Cameron (2005) established that public relations professionals have a tendency towards cooperation, whereas journalists are more directed towards conflict. Therefore any framework used to understand the relationship between journalists and public relations officers must be able to integrate the dimensions of both cooperation and conflict.

In the Middle Eastern Arab countries, public relations have been practised for a long time. Some Middle Eastern scholars make a compelling argument that the evolution of public relations practice in Arab culture can be traced back 1400 years, certainly to the time of Prophet Mohammed when public relations was used extensively to disseminate the new message, the new religion, and thus a new way of thinking, behaving and living peacefully with others (Aldemiri, 1988).

Currently there is a huge demand for highly qualified PR professionals with global experience in all aspects of PR, from media relations to public affairs. From the smallest local entity to the largest corporate cross the region, the Middle East has a soaring new demand for public relations, with more than 230 PR firms now operating in the region. However, the models used in that geo-political region are not identical to U. S. models, or to those in other western countries and the term “public relations” is very often misconceived, misunderstood and misappropriated in the Arab World. Arab common sense PR is public information and publicity.

To explore the relationship existing between journalists and public relations practitioners an email survey was sent to journalists based in the Arab Middle Eastern countries. The survey instrument is a questionnaire which includes a summated rating scale (quantitative data collection) and open-ended questions (qualitative data collection) to benefit from the advantages of both approaches.

As the mainstream media in the Middle East are produced in Arabic and/or English languages, the questionnaire was designed in both languages and emailed to 110 Arab and non-Arab journalists working for traditional mass media (radio, TV, print media) and electronic media. In response 64 journalists sent their feedback and comments to both the questionnaire and the open-ended questions.

Three categories of functions were included in the questionnaire: the practitioners as the source of messages (messenger), the message (press materials) and the communication channels.

1.      The practitioners to be measured by two items: How do journalists perceive the roles and work of the public relations practitioners? How do journalists evaluate the relationship with public relations practitioners?

2.      The message to be measured: To what extent do journalists need or depend on the work of public relations practitioners? How informative are the media materials they receive from PR practitioners? 

3.      The channels to be measured: How has the new e-communication helped or hindered the relation between journalists and public relations practitioners?

The questionnaire was initially sent to a small pilot study group via email to make sure that the respondents understood the questions. The pilot test was important to examine its validity, reliability, objectivity and its ethical considerations. Gray (2004) indicates that piloting a questionnaire helps to eliminate or reduce misleading questions.

 Additionally the researcher used open-ended questions to reach deeper thoughts, wider views and various opinions journalists hold toward PR practitioners. This type of question was sent to a number of journalists who showed a level of interest in the research and its subject when they responded to the questionnaire. The main open-ended questions were:

  1. How do you see the relationship between journalists and PR practitioners or Corporate Communication departments?
  2. Do you think there is any room for improvement? How?
  3. Which side of the relationship needs more attention? Is it the practitioners’ professionalism? Is it the media materials produced by the PR departments? Is it the communication channels?   
  4. Why do you think both journalists and PR practitioners should care about improving their relationship?
  5. Are there any other points you would like to make?
  6. Are there any suggestions you would advise the researcher to consider?

Some journalists have answered the above questions or some of them by adding their views to the end of the completed questionnaire.

The research findings indicated that the overall perception that journalists in the Middle Eastern Arab countries have towards PR is not too negative. In the area of trust and credibility only 18.7% of the journalists find PR practitioners honest, while 37.5% see otherwise. Moreover, in response to the question of whether journalists can trust public relations practitioners, 32.9% disagree (26.6% disagree and 6.3% strongly disagree) and only 23.5% agree.

 In contrast, when journalists were asked if public relations practitioners are helpful to journalists for informative, complete, and timely news, 42.2% strongly agree or agree while only 11% disagree or strongly disagree, and 46.9% of respondents were neutral.

The research findings indicate that over 51% of the journalists disagree (43.8% disagree and 7.8% strongly disagreed) that public relations departments supply media with newsworthy materials.

One of the most interesting findings in this research is that over 87% of the journalists agree that person-to-person communication is the best way to build a mutual relationship between journalists and PR practitioners.

THE SURVEY’ FINDINGS

The frequency charts are presented in the same order as the questions appeared in the questionnaire. The charts represent the statistics for frequencies and percentages of responses for each subject. In this section the findings are presented as they are for attitude (such as who agreed, who disagreed, etc.) with no interference, alterations, or analysis. The survey polled more than 110 journalists, with 64 respondents completing the survey and responding with comments and recommendations.

The first section of the questionnaire aims to understand the journalists’ perception of the PR practitioners as professionals who are in daily contact with the media. When journalists were asked if the public relations practitioners are helpful to journalists for informative, complete, and timely news, 42.2% strongly agreed or agreed, while only 11% disagreed or strongly disagreed, and 46.9% of respondents were neutral. (Fig.1)

 

 

When journalists were asked if public relations practitioners are honest with journalists, only 18.7% responded positively (3.1% strongly agreed and 15.6% agreed), while 37.5% answered negatively (29.7% disagreed and 7.8% strongly disagreed). (Fig.2)

 

 

In response to the question of whether public relations practitioners understand the problems journalists’ encounter, such as meeting deadlines or space limitation, journalists did not give a clear response, as 32.8% agreed and strongly agreed and equally 31.2% disagreed or strongly disagreed, while 35.9% of the respondents were neutral. (Fig.3)

 

In response to the question of whether journalists can trust public relations practitioners, 32.9% disagreed (26.6% disagreed and 6.3% strongly disagreed), while 23.5% (1.6% strongly agreed and 21.9% agreed) answered that they can trust PR practitioners. The rest of the respondents were neutral. (Fig. 4)

 

In the last question of the first section, journalists were asked if they consider the public relations practitioners as key sources of news and stories. In response 39.1% of the journalists disagreed (31.3% disagreed, 7.8% strongly disagreed), while 32.7% agreed (29.7% agreed, 6.3% strongly agreed). (Fig.5)

 

The second section of the questionnaire focused on the media materials produced and released by the PR departments to the media. In the first question journalists were asked if public relations departments supply media with newsworthy materials. In their responses 51.6% of the journalists disagreed (43.8% disagreed and 7.8% strongly disagreed), while only 15.6% agreed and 32.8% were neutral. (Fig.6)

 

In the second question related to the quality of the media materials produced and released by PR departments, journalists were asked if media materials sent by PR departments are well written and edited. In response to that 57.9% disagreed (43.8% disagreed, 14.1% strongly disagreed). In contrast, 15.7% agreed (14.1 agreed, 1.6% strongly agreed). (Fig.7)

 

Two questions were designed to examine the relevance of the media materials sent by PR departments. The first question was whether those materials are relevant to the journalists’ media outlet and the second question was whether those materials are relevant to the beat covered by the journalist. In response to the first question 56.3% of respondents agreed that the media materials they receive from PR departments are relevant to their organisation’s activities, while 31.3% disagreed. In response to the second question 78.1% of the journalists disagreed (50% disagreed, 28.1% strongly disagreed) that the media materials sent by PR departments are relevant to the beat they cover. (Figs 8, 9)       

 

The third part of the questionnaire focused on the communication channels PR practitioners and journalist are using to communicate with each other. In response to the question about the use of the electronic media, and whether journalists are using emails as a primary channel to contact PR practitioners, 95.3% of the respondents agreed (42.2% strongly agreed, 53.1% agreed) and only 4.7% were neutral. (Fig.10)

 

In response to the question of whether PR departments send media materials by email and re-send it again by fax / express mail, 18.2% of the respondents agreed (28.1% strongly agreed) while only 4.7% disagreed.(Fig.11) 

 

In response to the question of how much journalists are depending internet pages to follow up or to get further information, 64.9% of the respondents agreed that they depend very much on the internet to get further information in addition to the materials sent by the PR departments. Only 18.8% of the journalists disagreed and 34.4 were neutral. (Fig.12)

 

In response to the question about e-communications (email and internet) and whether those tools helped in improving the relationship with PR practitioners, 68.8% of the journalists agreed that email and the internet have helped in improving the relationship with PR practitioners and only 4.7% disagreed. (Fig.13)

The last question was about direct communication and whether journalists consider person-to-person communication as the best way to build a mutual relationship between journalists and PR practitioners. In response to the question 87.6% agreed (43.8% strongly agreed) and 4.7% disagreed but none of the respondents strongly disagreed. (Fig.14)

  

CONCLUSION:

The purpose of this study is to record, through literature research and field survey, the feelings and thoughts of journalists towards public relations practitioners.   The research findings indicate that the relationship between journalists and public relations practitioners in Middle Eastern Arab countries can be highly successful and beneficial to both parties in getting news out to the public when they work together. Overcoming misconceptions and stereotypes, complying with journalists' working requirements, and striving to meet their needs, public relations practitioners could reach a healthy relationship with journalists.

The overall perception that journalists in the Middle Eastern Arab countries have towards PR is not too negative and there are ways that PR practitioners can build more positive relationships with journalists. Being more aware of what information journalists actually require is a big part of this, rather than sending endless amounts of material that may prove to be useless. Improvement in this area comes down to better communication between journalists and PR practitioners, from both sides. Basic research into the publication the journalist is writing for and the type of story that will interest readers is a key factor in building better relationships. In other words, public relations professionals should pay particularly close attention to the types of news each media outlet covers. They also need to be aware of the style of writing; the way the news is presented; which reporters cover specific topics or beats; and other details that would be helpful to know when pitching a story to an outlet.

The first area of the relationship public relations practitioners are urged to improve is their trust and credibility, as only 18.7% of the journalists find PR practitioners honest while 37.5% see otherwise. Moreover, in response to the question of whether journalists can trust public relations practitioners, 32.9% disagreed (26.6% disagreed and 6.3% strongly disagreed) and only 23.5% agreed. Honesty and trustworthiness are of importance to journalists. They often feel that public relations professionals lack some or all of these ethics. To avoid scrutiny, public relations professionals must never, under any circumstances, lie, mislead or misrepresent themselves or the organisation they work for.

Secondly, public relations practitioners are invited to reconsider the methods of producing and disseminating media materials. When journalists were asked if the public relations practitioners are helpful to journalists for informative, complete and timely news, 42.2% strongly agreed or agreed, while only 11% disagreed or strongly disagreed, and 46.9% of respondents were neutral. Such positive findings should invite PR practitioners to review the relationship with journalists to improve the quality of media materials they provide to the media outlets, including the nature of contents and way of writing. The need for such improvements sounds very urgent when 51.6% of the journalists disagreed (43.8% disagreed and 7.8% strongly disagreed) that public relations departments supply the media with newsworthy materials; while only 15.6% agreed and 32.8% were neutral. Moreover; public relations practitioners are urged to improve the standard of the media material they produce and send to the media because when journalists were asked if media materials sent by PR departments are well written and edited a majority of 57.9% disagreed (43.8% disagreed, 14.1% strongly disagreed) and only 15.7% agreed.

 

Moreover, one of the most interesting findings in this research showed that the most critical component in media relations is developing and maintaining a network of personal contacts with the media. 87.6% of the journalists agreed that person-to-person communication is the best way to build a mutual relationship between journalists and PR practitioners. To build better relationships with members of the media, organisations must take the time to cultivate relationships with the right people in the right media. Additionally, PR departments and practitioners cannot simply turn the relationship on and off when a crisis strikes or when they have something they would like to communicate to the public. Instead, firms need to work to develop long-term relationships with the right journalists for their specific industry. This usually means meeting with reporters in good and bad times to build goodwill and credibility.

The findings of this study support the idea that an objective relationship between journalists and public relations people is important because hostility between the two groups can become troublesome and a major problem for both groups, and indirectly for the public.

RECOMMENDATIONS:

             Throughout the literature on excellent model and excellent public relations management, public relations researchers have been exploring different approaches to PR, (Grunig and Hunt, 1984; Murphy, 1991; Grunig and Grunig, 1992; Creedon, 1993; Grunig, 1993), to explain the value of public relations in an organisation and describe how the communication function is organised and practised most effectively. Probably the best model of public relations for a public relations department to use as a base for its goals and its communication activities is the two-way symmetrical model. Also public relations managers and executives must have the professional knowledge needed to practise the two-way symmetrical model.

                The two-way symmetrical model means that both fields (PR and journalism) must understand each other in order to reach the greatest amount of success in their career and for their organisation. It is important that public relations professionals familiarise themselves with the professions of their counterparts. The intended familiarisation should start with education. PR or corporate communication students should take at least one class each in journalism and media production. Universities should offer interdisciplinary programs between the fields, or minors in print journalism and television and radio production. PRs, if not from a journalistic background, need to study the media as an industry more closely to understand deadlines and the kind of information that is essential to every story. People who are currently practising public relations should consider taking a college course in these topics in order to enrich their knowledge. Parallel to that, journalism students should learn more about PR and corporate communication, and should know more about the PR profession in order to familiarise themselves with the nature of the PR practice and the challenges PR practitioners encounter when they find themselves stuck between the media’s requirements and the client’s demands. Moreover; by learning from the viewpoints of individuals both groups can move toward strengthening their professional relationship in the future.

                The Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA) can play a significant role in improving the relationship between journalists and PR in Middle Eastern Arab countries. Initial steps could include promoting greater awareness and understanding through: interactive discussion at presentations; joint sessions at professional conferences and meetings; special workshops; and through classroom lectures and assignments in courses that could even be co-taught by educators and practitioners in both fields. 

 

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