Published in May-Jun 2022
At best, private sector companies view the news media as ‘unfriendly’ and at worst ‘hostile’ towards them. Ironically, this feeling does not stem from any real or perceived ‘negative coverage’ of their business by the media. It comes from a reluctance on the part of economic and business reporters and editors to publish or broadcast anything that, in their view, is content that promotes those companies. “I believe journalists are hostile towards private businesses. They will prominently publish or broadcast anything negative about a company or a business, but when we approach them with a positive story, they shoot it down,” complains a senior executive of an FMCG company.
There indeed is an entrenched prejudice among business journalists against private businesses, and they have genuine reasons to be sceptical. Firstly, private companies put profits above the public interest. If they want to tell a story to their customers or the public, they should pay for it and place advertisements. Why give them the free promotion? Secondly, private businesses are widely perceived as vultures, prospering on government subsidies paid from taxpayers’ money. As a result, many people agree that the news media is justified in refusing to accommodate overtly promotional content. “Our clients want to pitch positive stories to the newspapers – they are usually newspapers – as it earns them the credibility no amount of advertising can deliver. In such cases, we ask them to avoid any overtly promotional content,” says the CEO of a major PR agency. “Once we receive the content, we vet it to make it acceptable for the publications in question. We leave the decision to publish or not to the journalist as per their paper’s editorial policy.”
He admits that some clients want to use their ‘commercial muscle’ to have their stories published but says, “We advise against this.” Furthermore, he does not agree that journalists or news media organisations are hostile towards businesses. “At the end of the day, news media organisations are also commercial businesses that are dependent on ad revenue for their survival. Why would they be hostile towards other businesses or cut the hand that feeds them? But if the content pitched to them comes across as an advertisement, how can a professional journalist or editor use it as a news story? What has to be understood is that journalists and their news organisations have their first obligation to their audiences and not the advertisers. If a piece of content does not meet their professional standards or has no news value, why would they print or broadcast it?”
People who have never worked in a newsroom cannot imagine the number of phone calls journalists receive from PR executives on any given day requesting them to carry “news” of their corporate clients or cover their events.
“After working for a decade in different PR companies, I can appreciate the concerns of journalists about the type of stories our clients ask us to pitch. Few, if any, are newsworthy as far as their audiences are concerned – and this is something our clients have difficulty understanding,” says a PR professional. “Although there is a bias among journalists against private businesses, in my experience, if a story has an element of news and some value for their audiences, no reporter will turn it down. Everyone wants to get their message across to a wider audience and the news media does this best; people have more trust in newspapers than in ads.”
With the growth of the private sector and the reduction in the public sector’s role in the country’s economy, newspapers have increased business coverage massively to inform their readers about economic developments. However, many people feel that the coverage revolves mostly around macroeconomic issues, such as interest rates, inflation and the IMF, rather than about emerging trends in business.
“When I went to India in the early 2000s, I was surprised to see their major newspapers carrying at least one dotcom story on their front pages. It was at a time when India was making inroads into that sector and I was told that the newspapers had consciously decided to carry at least one dotcom story every day because of increasing reader interest in the subject,” says a former editor of a major Pakistani newspaper. “Indian news organisations adapted to changing economic realities much earlier than we did. Our newspapers are still stuck in the past despite major changes in the country’s business and economic landscape. Although some have tried to adapt to the new realities, most limit their reporting to macroeconomic issues.”
A senior journalist who now works for an online publication says the issue with our traditional newspapers is that the owners and editors are not thinking about increasing their readership or developing new audiences to boost their circulation. “Building up new audiences requires that owners invest and align their coverage with their readers’ changing interests – something that the Indian media has done. Sadly, competition from digital media and the fact that ad revenues are moving to broadcast media have failed to force them to change, because it has not affected their bottom line. But for how long?”
Nasir Jamal is Bureau Chief, Dawn Lahore. firstname.lastname@example.org