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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Discussion: Press Credentials for Non-Press Professionals

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We are going to try something a little different in this space. Occassionally, chapter members will start an e-mail discussion over a topic where a group is CC'd in and then the "Reply to all" game is played. I will say often these discussions are interesting and lead to offline dialogue or other networking opportunities.

One such discussion recently developed:

GFW Chapter President, Andra Bennett, APR, sent out an e-mail concerning a PR ethics question raised by Fot Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy. Kennedy wrote:
"So when a PR person is gathering newsfilm -- Do they get a press credential?"
He was referencing this post in the Texas Politics Blog related Chuck McDonald, a Lobbyist/PR guy, having press credentials and being on the Texas House floor for Gov. Perry State of the State address.


The Discussion Begins
The ensuing e-mails were pretty thoughtful and interesting. At one point in the discussion I ask the group if anyone minded me putting some of this down for a blog post since others might benefit from the discussion.

I was given the green light, so here's what's been said on the issue:
Video news releases have been around for 20+ years. VNR-1 -- I never heard of them asking for "press credentials." They knew they were on the PR side. That is all changing now...

I personally do not think they should have press credentials if they are being paid by clients to support a lobbying function, whether they are "registered" as a lobbyist or not.

McDonald's website is a fine idea, but his mistake was that he didn't play by the rules, and that came back to bite him and cast (once again!) all PR people in a poor ethical light.
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McDonald's tactics disgust me.  If we don't respect the news media as being a different animal from us, meriting the privilege of "press credentials," then we ultimately weaken the public's confidence in the news media. Which in turn weakens the impact we can have for our clients.
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In this age of citizen media, any organization that seeks to restrict access to information on the base of credentialing is risking its reputation. It just doesn't make sense anymore. My 11 year old niece could shoot video from her phone that could be played on CNN -- so why shouldn't she and everyone like her have access to the same information at the same time?

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I think there are three issues, or questions here:

1) Was what Chuck McDonald did okay, or was it wrong? Wrong. But, in my opinion, only because he was a registered lobbyist, and rules prohibit registered lobbyists from being on the floor of the Texas House when the chamber is in session.

2) Should PR people be able to obtain press credentials? Certainly. We're in the news business, one way or another. If press credentials are required for obtaining access to the gathering of information a public relations professional needs to perform his or her job, and the public relations professional obtains the credentials in an above-board, legal manner, what's the problem? For instance, yesterday IBM's CEO, Sam Palmisano, was at the podium with President Obama, talking about the economic stimulus plan and the support it was receiving from IBM and other corporations. To have full access to that historic moment, should an IBM public relations staff person, or a person from a public relations firm representing IBM, been able to request and receive through the White House press credentials to be a part of and capture in photographs, film and/or audio that moment for archives and IBM "promotional" purposes, without having to rely on getting material from the news media? Absolutely. Should a public relations person working with a press credential purport to be a part of the "news media?" Absolutely not. We should always be above board about who we are, what we are doing and what are our interest level and intent. As a matter of information, the material from Washington yesterday that is being posted internally within IBM is from the White House and media sources, such as CNN, the Wall Street Journal, etc., and is appropriately labeled as being from those sources. And with my PR hat on, you can check out some video here.

3) How should material be handled by a public relations person who has gotten the material via a press credential? Straight forward and in an honest manner. If the presentation of the material has been altered in any way, it should be designated as not being an actual representation of what took place. In other words, that it's not a news production, but rather a public relations production, on behalf of a "client." Thus, it's not only the manner in which the material is obtained, but also the manner in which the material is presented. With full disclosure in obtaining and using information, it then is up to the audiences to determine the validity and value of the information that is being communicated to them. In that regard, I had no problem with Shale.TV, since it was fully disclosed it was going to be a Chesapeake production and not a "news production," but as most of you know, I had some serious issues with the manner in which Shale.TV was introduced and communications that were associated with the launch, which ultimately turned into a no-go.
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Very interesting issue. Great discussion. A few thoughts:
There needs to be a stand on defining journalism and/or degrees of journalism. Without licensing (God forbid), journalism is not as distinct a craft as it once was. As we see on the Web, anyone can practice journalism and claim to be a journalist. I'd guess that public perception of who/what journalists are still distinguishes professional journalists from amateurs and professional practitioners of communications for private- and public-sector entities.

Create a different credential for those who are not professional journalists but need access to an event, justifiably. I would not support "press" credentials for non-press folks. "Press" carries a distinct definition, legal boundaries and ethics. One needs to consider how this issue would play out in court. "Are you a member of the press, Ms. X?" No. "Then why were you claiming to be? Doesn't this credential you were wearing say 'Press'?"

Labeling a credential as "Press" instantly projects motivations, objectives and expectations that are distinct and not shared by other forms of communication.

Journalists' constituents are the public. Their motivation is, at least it should be, to present factual reporting, from spot to investigative, free of a private- or public-sector entity's aims. Enron comes to mind. Should Enron communicators have been issued "press" credentials as all of that coverage unfolded? I think not. Did those communicators deserve the same access to unfolding news events as the "press"? Absolutely. Was FEMA wrong to fake a "news" conference? Of course. Still, this is America after all and all things public are just that -- public. Last I heard, public relations practitioners are as "public" as any other person, journalist or not.

I recall a "Far Side" cartoon in which vultures were gathered around the corpse of a ranch hand. One vulture had put the decedent's hat on his head and was saying: "Hey, everybody, look at me! I'm a cowboy!" Right. Not that PR folks are vultures and journalists are dead meat. I'm just saying that "press" credentials should be issued only to practicing professional journalists. To be honest and ethical, let credentials label the press as such and come up with some other label for non-press.
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What do you think? Please weigh in via comments. The floor is yours.

2 comments:

  1. There has been a lot of discussion in various social media venues on the rise of citizen journalism, and I believe most folks would accede that we are in fact in that era due to the Internet. Thus, we have instant “reporters” like Janis Krums, who happened to be riding a ferry on the Hudson River when one US Airways airplane ditched. He had the presence of mind to capture photos, send them to this Twitter account, along with tweets about the rescue and wa-la! landed on every major newspaper editor’s radar out there, now lauded as a journo. His Twitter account went from 400 followers to 4,000 followers in a microsecond. Ditto with Joe the Plumber, who actually was hired by pjtv.com to report for them on the Israeli War.

    Now we all know that these people aren’t “real” journos—nevertheless, one, who calls himself an athlete (as Krums does on his Twitter account) did an outstanding job while the other (Joe) has failed miserably. In his first assignment, Joe says that journalists have no business reporting on war and then tries to entangle an Israeli journalist into saying that Israel is good—after saying that journalists shouldn’t try to slant the news one way or another (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/01/12/joe-the-plumber-fights-wi_n_157239.html). One (Joe) now has access to press credentials while the other (Krums) does not.

    As these lines continue blurring, I do agree that there should be different types of press credentials developed to distinguish between PR professionals and journalists. But should we also consider granting a limited-access pass to “citizen” journalists who wish to cover a specific event?

    In the end, the consumer still needs to understand the credibility of the communicator and be able to distinguish between those with credible reporting skills—even if they are citizen journalists—and those who simply don’t get it.

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  2. Really a very nice post! It’s something I have never thought about, really, but it makes a whole lot of sense. Thanks for sharing the valuable information regarding press credentials.

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