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Like your PR job? Like your local paper

Camelia Gendreau

The bottom line is this: Communications professionals still depend on journalists to help tell their clients’ and companies’ stories.

—Camelia Gendreau, HP

It’s not a secret that communications professionals tend to be a self-selected group of conciliators and networkers. And it’s a good thing that we like building relationships because our very profession is dependent on a (precarious) symbiotic accord with that of journalism. We inhabit the same ecosystem and deal in the same trade of storytelling.

For decades now, our professions have trod the fine line between friendship and enmity, the scales tipping ever so slightly back and forth on a daily basis, in thousands of personal interactions. But the bottom line is this: Communications professionals still depend on journalists to help tell their clients’ and companies’ stories.

(Also worth noting: According to the PRWeek/Cision 2019 Global Comms Report, traditional journalists remain prominent when it comes to media engagement, with 61% of PR pros saying their engagement efforts are focused on them, as opposed to 39% who cite “newer” influencers.)

Local publications occupy a special place in this conversation. As citizens, we need them to act as watchdogs, to investigate and expose malfeasance and corporate bad behaviors and to provide a forum for public debate. And as PR pros, we must remember that local news is many times the spring from which everyone feeds, from social media and influencers all the way to national news outlets and morning shows such as Today. More than once in my communications career, a small, seemingly obscure story about my client or employer was published in a local news outlet only to be picked up, days later, by CNN, USA Today or the Huffington Post.

Which is why we should all be very concerned that the professionals we correspond, collaborate or spar with every day are under attack from two very different directions.

One stems from declining trust in the media, fueled in part by critics seeking to diminish their credibility — sometimes the very institutions the media are meant to cover and hold accountable. In 2019, local publications exposed an enormous amount of institutional nefariousness including, among others: the low rates of convictions for sexual assaults in North Carolina, abuse of youth by a caretaking staff in South Dakota, human right abuses at local ICE detention facilities in Colorado, environmental disasters in Virginia and the list goes on.

The other threat, more insidious, is technology itself. Just as social media platforms grab revenue and eyeballs from local newspaper sites (nearly one in five — almost 1,800 local newspapers — closed in the past 15 years), automation rushes in with its cost-cutting promises to replace even more flesh-and-blood journalists. The Washington Post, the AP and The Atlantic are just a few of the publications that have publicly admitted to using automated tools (bots, code, AI, etc.) to create content in recent years. The Intercept reported recently that, in an effort at radical cost-cutting, holding companies are pushing for the use of AI to cover everything from high school sports to municipal government news and school districts.

The comms profession is not replaceable by an algorithm, partly because we derive our value from human networks and slow-build relationships. But ask yourself: What happens when there’s nobody left on the other side? When the majority of the reporters we work with are replaced with lines of code or with writing farms? What relationships will we leverage then?

Here’s the good news. We have the power to, at the very least, show up and pay up, in a spirit of solidarity with the folks who help us do our jobs. If you won’t do it as a citizen, do it as a PR professional: Go out there today and subscribe to your local newspaper. In fact, go ahead and get your company a subscription to the local paper for every office in every city in which they operate. And, finally, get yourself some extra karma points and donate to an organization that supports local newsrooms and develops journalists — the Knight Foundation offers an extensive list.

Camelia Gendreau is a diversity and inclusion communications lead for HP. She is a tech PR pro, news junkie and aspiring novelist. Having been born behind the Iron Curtain, she has a deep reverence for the free press.

Editor’s note: Want proof of the power of local media? Check out “The path to national news is through local earned media” on earnedmediarising.com

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