Amy Rosenberg

Does the Washington Post Need a Public Relations Firm?

By: Amy Rosenberg | March 26, 2019 | 
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public relationsTechnology has changed the way we consume our news.

We no longer sit down with our morning coffee and flip through the newspaper with ink-stained hands.

Instead, we have 24-hour access to information at the push of a button, and traditional newsrooms have had to evolve.

Advertising budgets are being slashed, resources eliminated, and in some cases, entire news organizations are shuttering.

Journalists lucky enough to have jobs are worried—working their tails off for little pay.

To make matters worse, they aren’t given the necessary resources to do the type of thorough reporting they want to do.

Some people refer to the industry as as “fake,” and certain outlets are even being shut out of White House news conferences.

Super Bowl Ad Causes a Stir

These issues recently caused The Washington Post to resort to advertising, rather than relying on its own journalistic approach.

In its first-ever Super Bowl commercial, the Post highlighted the importance of a free and open press, while featuring those who have lost their lives while reporting.

Narrated by Tom Hanks, the ad pays homage to his role as former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee in the 2017 Steven Spielberg film “The Post”.

The spot ends with Hanks saying: “Knowing empowers us. Knowing helps us decide. Knowing keeps us free.”

Their slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness” runs underneath The Washington Post logo.

There has been speculation as to whether or not the ad worked.

If garnering attention was the point, Adweek would say that it did.

In a recent article, the magazine writes, “the Washington Post was among the most discussed brands of the night.”

And more importantly, the audience cared.

Media outlets were one of the top area of audience interest on Twitter, ranking higher than the NFL.

This created the perfect situation for The Washington Post: an enormous audience that is interested in their industry and an ad from an organization that you typically wouldn’t see during the Super Bowl.

However, not everyone was happy with the spot.

Missing the Mark

Perhaps the ad increased brand interest on a general level.

But what about the nuanced world of internal communications?

If that was a consideration, the ad definitely didn’t hit the mark.

According to The Wrap: “At least three of the Post’s own reporters say the spot’s cost of up to $10 million was exorbitant and could have been better spent improving the newsroom.”

In a four-part Twitter thread, reporter, Fredrick Kunkle slammed the spot:

The Post is now paying, say, $5M/30 seconds to tout journalistic freedom during one of the glitziest and—given the NFL’s knee-taking protests and concussions—more controversial sports events in our country,” he said. “While I too am extremely proud of the Post and its legacy, this seems like an especially infuriating expense for a company that has: a) tried to take away health care insurance from part-time employees b) moved everyone toward riskier forms of health insurance.

While I commend the Post for taking a thoughtful and memorable stance on the issue, I wonder if they needed a public relations firm instead.

Certainly, a public relations campaign would have been less offensive to their most important audience—their journalists.

What Would a Public Relations Pro Do?

Maybe the Post’s staff could better demonstrate the industry’s commitment to factual reporting by highlighting how many reporters perished on the job, and tying the story to a key anniversary.

Perhaps they could have reported about the industry’s decline, while citing statistics showing how people rely on news to make essential decisions.

Let’s take it one step further.

If the Post’s PR team had pitched these ideas to external media sources, they might have been able to place their story in a larger context.

Where Do PR Pros Start?

Perhaps this type of proactive public relations might seem a bit risky to a newspaper.

Trusting that their stories would get picked up in other outlets, and believing that the resulting coverage would make an impact takes guts.

The uncertainty of PR reminds me of a conversation I had with a colleague.

She, too, started a public relations firm with her husband years ago.

But she soon left news release writing and journalist schmoozing behind.

Instead, she chose to focus on content marketing as opposed to advertising.

She said it was because there were fewer contacts to pitch, and some newspapers she used to land stories in didn’t even exist anymore.

“Do you have access to a million dollars you can embezzle?” her husband jokingly states when prospective clients inquire about getting on the first page of top-tier publications. “Because that’s what it would cost to get that done.”

Paid Media and Public Relations

In journalism, there has always been a separation between the advertising and editorial departments.

Possibly because of that, the media industry could view paying for placement of a message, rather than pitching it for earned media coverage, as the more familiar way.

Moreover, media outlets have always profited from advertising sales.

As a result, they likely view advertising as a viable way to get their messages across.

The (Not So) Confusing World of PR

But who am I kidding?

We all know a public relations campaign probably never even occurred to the higher-ups at the Post.

Corporate America still doesn’t understand what we do.

And this is dangerous, not just for us, but for major companies, including publishers.

Look anywhere online.

You’ll see posts extolling the value of honesty and credibility in everything we do, especially in the workplace.

So where are the public relations people when it comes to making marketing or business decisions?

Imagine if one of us had pulled up a chair during the Post’s Superbowl ad brainstorming session.

Rather than turning to advertising, maybe a public relations professional could have encouraged the company to think outside the box.

Which is why we should put our news release writing fingers to rest, and demonstrate the value we bring to organizations.

And that could earn us a seat at the table.

Maybe then we can begin to bring our light into a “Democracy [that] Dies in Darkness.”

Do you think media outlets could benefit from public relations? What has your experience been? Share your comments below.

About Amy Rosenberg


Amy Rosenberg is president of Veracity, a marketing and PR agency based in Portland, Ore. She is also the host of PR Talk, sponsored by the Public Relations Society of America (Oregon). The marketing & PR podcast interviews the media and other influencers to better understand the craft of PR.