Midtown Raleigh News

July 25, 2014

PR stunt leaves a bad taste

There is a place in every newsroom that is hallowed ground.

There is a place in every newsroom that is hallowed ground.

Without warning, it becomes at once a gathering place and an altar, feeding grounds for journalists who have learned — after years of erratic eating schedules — to pounce on the food that our colleagues bring in, few questions asked.

In the News & Observer newsroom, it is “the usual place.” Tucked into the body of an email, those three words are a silent siren call during the workday. People who rarely look up from their screens to mutter pleasantries will rise from their chairs and move at speeds unseen since we learned better than to run indoors.

That primal instinct overtook a few of us last week, when homemade cookies, accompanied by a cryptic press release, purportedly from the City of Raleigh, arrived in our office. The release mentioned that Mayor Nancy McFarlane was set to make an important announcement about economic development the following day at City Plaza.

We thought little of the veracity of the release. After all, in days past, the city has sent out at least two similar teasers, guaranteeing that the rest of the story would be revealed during a follow-up press conference. The first time, it was to build suspense around an upcoming Billy Joel concert; the second, to announce McFarlane’s trip to South by Southwest.

So we wrote it up and posted it online.

A day later, McFarlane called to refute the release’s claim, unraveling a mess that left us burned. It got me thinking about the uneasy symbiosis between journalists and public relations practitioners, which is be based on mutual trust and strengthened by the journalist’s responsibility to verify information.

Journalists increasingly (and somewhat begrudgingly) depend on PR professionals as part of our newsgathering operations in the Information Age, particularly in matters pertaining to local government announcements.

The days of sending a reporter down to City Hall to work a beat for an indeterminate amount of time are gone. While the journalist sifts through tips from the public, meeting minutes and government records, she relies on the PR practitioner to pitch information releases with honesty, accuracy and integrity.

Not gimmickry, as with homemade cookies to promote an upcoming event. And certainly not by misappropriating a government seal that is embedded with the trust built between the city’s PR department and our staff.

We got Punk’d last week, so to speak. We accepted what appeared to be part of an attention-grabbing press kit and, acting on good faith, published an equally lighthearted blog, an action that has ultimately contributed to damaged relationships, and in one individual’s case, destroyed credibility.

It won’t happen again. For all the creativity that local and national PR, strategic communication and marketing firms come up with to grab news workers’ attention, this strategy was an unfortunate reminder that in all things it’s good to trust, but better to verify.

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