Taking the measure of PR versus 'real news'

With press releases often ranking higher on news aggregation pages than professionally reported articles, lines are blurring. But readers can tell the difference.

How should one measure the value of corporate PR against the coverage it subsequently engenders? A few years ago, that question never would have merited more than a moment's consideration. Here was the way things worked: Flacks sent out releases, the press decided what was important, and readers read what was deemed newsworthy. End of "story."

That's ancient history. During the course of any 24-hour news cycle, PR releases often rank higher on news aggregation pages like TechMeme than do professionally reported articles or blog items. I began noticing the shift about a year ago, and it's only becoming more pronounced.

The value of news is never going to go away, but the definition has changed. Laura Sturaitis, a senior vice president over at Business Wire, told me that in the last couple of years, her firm has pushed its clients to gussy up their press releases by including video or photos with text. It also has encouraged the use of bolding and bullet points, with an eye toward helping releases compete more successfully against other Web pages, when it comes to readers' attention.

"This is stuff that people like to read online," she said. "We're not talking about the content, but the format...so the page becomes a portal or mini Web page to other kinds of information. This is a new way to tell a story."

Maybe it's not a question screaming to get put on the docket of the Oxford Union, but let's not kid ourselves. Definitions are morphing, and there's a risk of blurring the line between press releases and news. Or, I should add, a theoretical risk.

With people getting more information from more different sources than ever before, the reading public is smart enough to discern the difference. The company is not the final word. Instead, it's the start of an ongoing conversation. I can't speak for most of you, but I think we can agree that the more voices, the better.

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About the author

Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.

 

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