Coverage of Public Relations on Network Television News:
An Exploratory Census of Content
Kevin L. Keenan
College of Journalism
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742
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Submitted to Public Relations Division of AEJMC
March 26, 1996
Coverage of Public Relations on Network Television News:
An Exploratory Census of Content
Media coverage of public relations topics is discussed.
A census of network television news stories about public relations is
described. An increase in coverage from 1980 through 1995 is found.
Politicians and foreign governments are the most commonly reported on users.
Stories tend to have a neutral tone and assume the press agentry model of public
relations. Themes usually involve war, disaster, or distraction. Explanations
of the type of coverage and potential audience effects are brought up.
The relationship of public relations to journalism and the media is
an important but sometimes fractious one. While there
is a certain amount of co-dependence between the two professions,
there are also serious disputes and frictions regarding their respective roles
and activities. Institutional philosophies and attitudes of practitioners from
the two fields are the basis of many such problems.
A series of surveys looking at the opinions of journalists regarding
public relations over the past 20 years have consistently found those opinions
to be negative. As a group, journalists have ranked public relations last
(Aronoff, 1975; Carroll, 1994) and next to last (Kopenhaver, 1985) in a list of
16 professions in terms of respect and esteem. Olasky (1989) suggests there are
professional jealousies between the two fields. Ryan and Martinson write of a
"love-hate relationship" between journalism and public relations and conclude
that their research shows an "antagonism that is firmly embedded in journalistic
culture" (1988, p. 139).
Perhaps the most cited example of the bad feelings between journalism
and public relations professionals affecting business
practices is a policy implemented at the Washington Post during the
eighties which banned PR practitioners from access to the paper's editorial
pages. In a statement on the matter, Post editor Meg Greenfield said of public
relations, "It's a hustle," and said of public relations people, "we don't want
any of that damned crowd around here" (Cannon, 1982, p. 35).
Whether such contentious thoughts and actions on the part
of journalists have any effect on how topics related to public
relations are covered in the news, or whether that coverage might influence how
audiences perceive public relations as a field, are questions that have received
limited research attention. A primary purpose of the present paper is to
examine how network television news covers public relations and to provide some
framework for looking at audience perceptions of PR.
Past Content Studies
Among the work that has looked at portrayals of public relations is
an analysis of mass communication textbooks which found an overall negative bias
against PR in the content of such texts (Cline, 1982). In discussing the
implications of this finding, Cline worries about the potential impact of such a
bias on students as future journalism or public relations professionals and
raises the point that it may "perpetuate the antagonism between reporters and
practitioners" (p. 71). Indeed, it seems a valid concern that socializing
journalism students to disrespect public relations might lead to negative
attitudes and unfair treatment of public relations as a news topic.
Two prior studies have looked at the issue of how the news media
cover stories related to public relations. Bishop (1988) conducted an
electronic content analysis of three daily newspapers for a one month period and
found no mention of the term "public relations" and only three mentions of "PR."
When he expanded his investigation to include the term "publicity," 121 news
items were found. While his coding scheme interpreted the majority of these as
being positive in tone, Bishop points out that newspaper coverage of the public
relations profession seems to be equated solely with its publicity function and
calls this a "distorted view" of the field.
In a somewhat more extensive study, Spicer (1993) looked at media
content containing either the term "public relations" or "PR" in both newspapers
and magazines. Of the 84 items included in his analysis, over 80 percent were
coded as using the term in a negative context, leading to his conclusion that
"the negative attitudes of reporters and editors toward the public relations
profession are indeed behaviorally evident in their negative use of the terms
public relations and PR" (p. 59). Spicer further determined that stories
reporting on public relations were based on seven distinct themes, which he
labeled distraction, disaster, challenge, hype, merely, war, and schmooze. Like
Bishop, Spicer also found the majority of the items he examined were based on a
press agentry/publicity model of public relations.
Although current evidence is limited to these two studies, it does
seem that the print media have a certain way of portraying the public relations
profession. To generalize, PR is usually presented as being synonymous with
publicity or press agentry and is often associated with negative connotations.
There is even less evidence about the reasons behind such portrayals, but
explanations attributing them to journalistic attitudes toward public relations
would seem viable.
Still lacking in the literature on this issue is a consideration of
how the broadcast media handle public relations topics in the news. Dominick
(1984) has studied television news coverage of business topics in general and
concluded that it tends to be more negative than nonbusiness news. Keenan
(1995) looked at tv news stories dealing specifically with the advertising
industry and found negative items outnumbering positive ones by nearly four to
one. But to date, questions about how television news covers public relations
have not been raised.
Possible Audience Effects
Whether the attitudes of journalists are related to how public
relations is covered and whether that coverage is positive or negative are valid
research points in and of themselves. From a broader perspective, they might
also be tied to matters of how media audiences perceive the public relations
profession and public relations activities.
One paradigm for addressing media influence on audience perceptions
is offered by cultivation analysis. As described by Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, and
Signorielli (1994), cultivation analysis is a means of determining the
"contributions television viewing makes to viewer conceptions of social reality"
Models based on cultivation analysis have been used to examine
audience conceptions of reality concerning a range of phenomena, including
various professions. Pfau, Mullen, and Garrow (1995) studied the medical
profession and found that public perceptions are related to how physicians are
depicted on television. A similar study showed direct relationships between
television portrayals and viewer perceptions of attorneys on several dimensions
(Pfau, Mullen, Deidrich, and Garrow, 1995).
Methodologically, cultivation analysis is two pronged. It consists
of detailed content analysis for determining how a topic is presented in the
media and survey research for measuring level of media exposure and audience
perceptions of the profession or topic under study. Conclusions about media
influence on perceptions of social reality are then reached by linking the
findings of the content and audience studies.
A full investigation of the relationship of television coverage to
audience perceptions of public relations is beyond the capacity and intention of
the current paper. But in supplement to work by Bishop (1988) and Spicer
(1993), the research which follows might provide a description of media content
from which to build future theory and research based on a cultivation approach
to the subject.
Research Purpose, Questions and Definitions
This study can be considered an exploratory effort to examine how
public relations is treated in network television news. A primary objective is
to discover when, where, and how often PR topics have been covered. The context
of stories dealing with public relations will be evaluated by noting the
industries or users reported as being involved with public relations practices
and the individuals or sources consulted for their expertise in the field.
Beyond basic description, and based on many of the points raised
above, this study will also look at the themes, tones, and assumptions of
television news stories about public relations. This will include an
application of Spicer's (1993) thematic analysis to see if his categories and
findings extend to the television medium and if they are exhaustive. As
originally offered by Spicer, the themes of print news items dealing with public
relations were given the following names and definitions:
Distraction: The terms public relations or PR are often
used to indicate that the reporter perceives that someone
is trying to obfuscate an issue/event or deflect the
reporter's (and by inference the public's) interest
in the issue (Spicer, 1993, p. 53).
Disaster: The terms public relations or PR are used in a
manner to suggest that a decision was made (or almost made)
or an action taken (or almost taken) that is perceived to
be unwise, foolish, or a mistake (Spicer, 1993, p. 54).
Challenge: Genuine public relations difficulty as opposed
to a one-time disaster or distraction ... not trying to
distract, deflect, avoid (Spicer, 1993, p. 54-55).
Hype: Public relations and PR are used either to suggest
positive but relatively meaningless action on the part
of a person or organization or to create an artificial
excitement (Spicer, 1993, p. 55).
Merely: Terms used to suggest that some action is "only"
or "just" public relations, as opposed to any real idea
or program (Spicer, 1993, p. 56).
War: The metaphor of war ... public relations is presented
as an ongoing battle to fight or gain positive public
opinion or perception (Spicer, 1993, p. 57).
Schmooze: Public relations as a personality characteristic,
embodied within the personality of an individual (Spicer,
1993, p. 57).
An evaluation of the tone used in reporting on public relations will
be made based on these themes, any others that are revealed, and the positive or
negative slant of each item. Finally, tv news stories will be studied to
determine which of Grunig and Hunt's (1984) four models of public relations they
seem to be based on. These models and summaries of their definitions are as
Press agentry: Public relations programs whose sole purpose
is getting favorable publicity for an organization in the
mass media (Hunt & Grunig, 1994, p. 8).
Public information: To disseminate relatively objective
information through the mass media and controlled media
such as newsletters, brochures, and direct mail (Hunt &
Grunig, 1994, p. 8).
Two-way asymmetric: Uses research to develop messages
that are likely to persuade strategic publics to behave
as the organization wants ... any change needed to resolve
a conflict must come from the public and not from the
organization (Hunt & Grunig, 1994, p. 8).
Two-way symmetric: Uses communication to manage conflict
and improve understanding with strategic publics ... bases
public relations on negotiation and compromise (Hunt & Grunig, 1994,
Given the exploratory and descriptive nature of this research, no
explicit hypotheses are proposed. Instead, the study is meant as an initial
investigation into television news depictions of public relations and as
something of a baseline from which testable hypotheses might be developed in the
A census of all evening newscasts on the three major broadcast
television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) was conducted for the 16 year period
from 1980 through 1995. The Television News Archive at Vanderbilt University
served as the frame defining the universe of newscasts.
An on-line search of all television news stories abstracted in the
Vanderbilt collection was conducted using the keywords "public relations" and
"PR." The unit of analysis was the individual news story, with each story
containing either "public relations" or "PR" included in the study. There were
a total of 79 such stories, 77 mentioning public relations and two using the
term PR as an abbreviation for public relations.
The date and network for each story were recorded from headings
listed in the story's abstract and the tone, theme, public relations model,
industry or user cited, and sources consulted were coded based on multiple
readings of each abstract. Each item was analyzed independently by two coders.
Intercoder agreement was 100 percent for date, network, and industry or user
cited, 95 percent for sources consulted, 95 percent for story tone, 76 percent
for public relations model, and 75 percent for story theme. In cases of
disagreement, a final coding decision was reached through discussion between the
Of the 79 television news stories mentioning public relations or PR
during the years studied, 24 aired on ABC, 27 were on CBS, and 28 were on NBC.
Such stories were most common in the early nineties, with the largest number
(15) appearing in 1991 and 1993. A breakdown of when public relations stories
appeared is shown in Table One.
TABLE ONE ABOUT HERE
Sixty-seven stories dealt with what might be considered the
"practice" of public relations in that they in some way involved a public
relations strategy, tactic, or outcome on the part of a particular user. The
most common users of public relations in
these stories were foreign governments (17) and U.S. politicians (16).
The foreign governments depicted as the biggest users of public
relations were Iraq and the former Soviet Union, with three stories each.
Kuwait and Israel were both mentioned as using PR in two stories, and the
governments of Cambodia, Japan, South Africa, China, Croatia, Libya, and the PLO
were each cited once.
Among the politicians portrayed as using public relations during
the years studied, five stories involved Bill Clinton, four involved Ronald
Reagan, two were about George Bush, and there was one story about Jimmy Carter
and one about Dan Quayle. Three stories were somewhat generic in talking about
public relations practices among politicians in general.
The U.S. government agency and court/trial categories were a distant
third behind foreign governments and politicians as users of public relations,
with five stories each. Two of the government agency stories dealt with the
State Department, while the Department of Energy, the Justice Department, and
the Federal Emergency Management Agency were each brought up in one story. Two
of the court/trial stories were about the O.J. Simpson trial and the others were
about the William Kennedy Smith trial, the Menedez brothers trial, and General
William Westmoreland's court case against CBS News.
A summary of the users of public relations reported on is given in
Table Two. The 12 items that did not directly involve public relations
practices and a specific user of PR included eight stories in which someone
identified as a public relations expert was asked to comment on some topic,
including two such stories dealing with sports, and one each on fashion,
politics, economics, international relations, juvenile crime, and cybersex. The
remaining four stories made reference to public relations in reporting on high
stress occupations, unemployment, white collar crime, and a lawsuit brought by a
TABLE TWO ABOUT HERE
The coverage of public relations subjects included on-screen
consultation of sources other than the reporter or network anchorperson in 34 of
the 67 stories directly related to PR practices. In eight cases, more than one
such source was consulted for a single story. These outside sources of
information and expertise are listed in Table Three. The most common sources
were individuals identified as being public relations professionals (eight) and
foreign government representatives (five). Of the eight public relations
professionals consulted, four were employed by the public relations user the
story was reporting on, two were treated as disinterested consultants, and two
were affiliated with public relations firms. The public relations firms
mentioned by name were Hill & Knowlton and Ruder-Finn.
TABLE THREE ABOUT HERE
The seven themes used in Spicer's study (1993) were found to fit the
television news data fairly well and provide a parsimonious system for examining
all but the 12 stories not dealing with public relations practices. For those
12, two other themes were added to the coding scheme. The names given to these
extra themes are "expertise," where a story referred to someone in public
relations for their knowledge or opinion on a topic, and "society," for those
items that dealt with the role or place of public relations and public relations
practitioners in the larger culture and society. Table Four presents a summary
of the nine themes with the frequency of each. The most common themes were war
(19), disaster (18), and distraction (14).
TABLE FOUR ABOUT HERE
Television news stories based on the war theme included those which
dealt explicitly with the public relations efforts of a nation at-war and
stories which made use of metaphors based on
wars or battles. The most often reported stories about public
relations involving an actual war dealt with what was referred to sequentially
as Desert Shield, Desert Storm, and the Persian Gulf War. These stories tended
to present a situation pitting the United States against Iraq and focused on the
public relations practices of one or both sides. In at least two such items,
the phrase "PR war" was actually used. Other stories based on at-war usage of
public relations included confrontations of Kuwait with Iraq, Russia with
Lithuania, Serbia with Croatia, and "public relations actions taken by U.S.
troops in Haiti." Examples of stories using war metaphors included one which
described a "State Department public relations initiative to seize control," one
which described an effort by President Reagan to "counter attack" image
problems, one dealing with a "public relations offensive" by an oil company, and
one about a "campaign attacking employers who do not provide health care."
In several cases, stories based on the disaster theme actually used
the term "disaster" or a synonym in referring to public relations practices and
decisions. Examples of this included a report about the White House travel
office and "the public relations disaster coming out of this incident," one
about "the public relations quagmire for Israel brought on by its expulsion of
over 400 Palestinians," and reference to "the resulting public relations
nightmare" due to delays in the providing of relief to hurricane victims. Some
other items coded as using the disaster theme included stories about product
tampering, the decision to bury radioactive waste at an earthquake site, the
resignation of the president of the United Way, and the dissatisfaction of Jack
in the Box with decisions made by their public relations firm.
The distraction theme was used in stories where an event or action
was portrayed as being an attempt to divert attention from a particular issue.
These included items about the public relations aspects of certain government
summits and conferences, trips and speeches by politicians, and strategies used
by the National Rifle Association, oil companies, and the tobacco industry to
oversimplify issues or draw attention away from various areas of criticism. In
one such story, reference was made to "a public relations scam," meant to cover
up scientific evidence about the health effects of cigarette smoking.
None of the remaining themes was used in more than ten percent of the
television news stories about public relations. As detailed above, the
expertise theme involved public relations practitioners providing input for
reporting on stories that did not otherwise deal with public relations topics.
The hype theme included two items using the phrase "PR gimmick" and news about
subjects such as a hockey game and an airline promotion where public relations
conveyed artificial importance. Stories that reported about ongoing campaigns
and objectives, such as the public relations efforts of Japanese firms to
influence public opinion and the federal government soliciting citizen feedback
on budget issues, were coded as using the challenge theme. Stories about the
public relations profession in reference to the industry's position in society
on dimensions such as employment options and job satisfaction were coded as
using the society theme. Stories based on the merely theme referred to public
relations in minimizing the significance of something, including a story that
stated outright that a particular action by the government of South Africa was
"merely public relations," one that spoke of negotiations with the Soviet Union
as being PR "instead of substantive talk," and an item that referred to public
relations "flack" as an example of government waste. The schmooze theme was
used in stories that treated certain individuals (Ronald Reagan and Dan Quayle's
PR advisor) as having a natural gift for public relations.
Only the 67 stories dealing with PR practices were coded on the
public relations model variable. As shown in Table Five, the press agentry
model was by far the most common (31), followed by the two-way asymmetric model
(18), the public information model (16), and the two-way symmetric model (2).
TABLE FIVE ABOUT HERE
Those stories that employed the press agentry model treated public
relations as synonymous with publicity and reported on practices designed to
generate positive media coverage or offset negative coverage. The subjects of
such stories ranged from the Khmer Rouge staging a mock battle for journalists
in Cambodia, to political and corporate photo opportunities, to coverage of the
strategies used by the National Rifle Association "designed to improve its
image" and by a group of Serbian-Americans "to counter the negative image of
Stories based on the two-way asymmetric model were less oriented
toward the media relations role of public relations. They reported on public
relations as involving a planned course of action and activities for influencing
a public and seeking a certain outcome on behalf of the user. Examples of items
that used the two-way asymmetric model included one about the "oil industry's
response to anticipated public reaction to profits," one about the design and
implementation of Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to the United States, one about
corporate participation in various Earth Day events, and several about the
lobbying efforts of different industry groups.
The public information model of public relations was assumed in
stories that dealt in some way with the dissemination of materials or
information by the public relations user. These included items about
government and military communiques, a statement by Chrysler on
automobile imports, the release of findings from an investigation of
college athletics, films about army training exercises, and multi-media
campaigns on the part of private and public users.
Only two stories were coded as being based on the two-way symmetric
model of public relations. In both cases, the users of public relations were
politicians. The first such story involved Ronald Reagan's changes in position
on government spending in response to public perceptions of him and of the
issue. The other story was about a toll-free telephone number used by the
Clinton administration for soliciting citizen input on economic issues.
The final dimension evaluated was the overall tone of each story.
Using a trichotomous coding scheme, seven stories were found to have a positive
tone, 29 were negative, and 43 were coded as neutral in tone. The positive
stories referred to public relations as contributing to a recognized and
deserving cause or having some socially beneficial outcome. These included
items about a traveler's aid program, charity work, disaster relief, the
environment, patriotism, and a campaign to discourage cigarette smoking among
Negative stories were of three types. Several such stories were
coded as negative because they associated public relations with users or topics
that have negative connotations themselves. These included items about Saddam
Hussein, racism in South Africa, off-shore oil spills, and the serving of
tainted meat in a restaurant. Other stories reported on actual public relations
practices in a negative way. Examples of this included stories about
unscrupulous election campaign tactics, corporate coverups, unfair lobbying
methods, and accusations of deceptive or illegal activities. The third category
of stories coded as being negative in tone had to do with news about the public
relations business itself, including reports of unemployment and high stress
levels in the public relations industry, and criminal indictment of PR
The majority of all television news stories about public relations
were found to have a neutral tone. Stories coded as neutral did not present
public relations practices or the public relations profession in either an
especially favorable or unfavorable light. Neutral stories reported on PR as an
accepted and understood business or political function and did not stress
specific contributions or criticisms of public relations.
The above findings offer a description of how network television news
has covered public relations topics. As such, they provide a benchmark for
tracking future coverage of PR and for comparisons with the coverage of other
topics or business areas. They can also serve as the basis for some
interpretations and limited conclusions about biases in the media's treatment of
public relations and the possibility of television coverage influencing audience
perceptions of the field.
Network television news regards public relations as an increasingly
newsworthy area. The 79 stories dealing with public relations over the 16 years
studied represent an average of just under five stories per year. During the
eighties, the average number of stories per year was 1.6. In the nineties, the
number of stories has increased to 10.5 per year through 1995.
While a fairly broad range of industries, organizations, and
individuals are portrayed as being users of public relations, nearly half of the
stories that dealt with the public relations practices of particular users were
about foreign governments or U.S. politicians. Among the foreign governments
using public relations, those brought up most often were the Soviet Union and
Iraq, arguably the countries perceived most negatively by Americans during the
period examined here.
Stories about specific politicians as users of public relations dealt
exclusively with those at the federal level and with the exception of Dan
Quayle, with United States presidents. Similarly, though far fewer stories
involved the use of PR by government agencies, all such stories concerned the
public relations practices of federal rather than state or local agencies.
In terms of the users reported on, then, it seems that television
news portrays public relations as something practiced by foreign (and often
enemy) governments, by presidents, and by federal bureaucrats. To some audience
members, the linking of public relations with such users may have no effect one
way or the other, or may even produce favorable associations. But to others, it
is likely that such a linkage contributes to unfavorable attitudes about the
Beyond those news items dealing with the public relations practices
of particular users, several stories made mention of public relations in some
broader context. These were of two basic types; those that asked a practitioner
for input on a topic not directly related to public relations and those that
reported on the industry in general. The group of stories seeking input from a
public relations professional on subjects ranging from fashion to politics and
economics might be thought of as portraying public relations in a positive way.
That is, they tend to convey the impression that the PR person is a "Renaissance
man (or woman)" with a range of interests and experiences. Those items about
the industry in general, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly negative in their
depiction of public relations. The impression conveyed in these stories is that
public relations is a stressful occupation with little job security and elements
As would be expected, public relations professionals are the most
commonly consulted sources in stories having to do with public relations topics.
Also not surprising, given the findings about PR usage, the next most common
sources are representatives of foreign governments. The depiction and possible
audience perception of public relations as a practice of foreign nations is
reinforced by the on-screen presence of such sources.
The themes and overall tones of television news stories about public
relations vary somewhat from what has been found in studies of the print media.
Whereas the most common print themes were disaster and distraction (Spicer,
1993), those ranked second and third behind the war theme among television
stories. Hype, challenge, merely, and schmooze were relatively minor themes for
both print and television stories, as were the expertise and society themes used
in this study. So, the main difference between the print and television
portrayals of public relations in terms of theme is that tv stories gave more
emphasis to reports based on at-war situations and war metaphors. Both media
classes commonly depict public relations as involving attempts to offset poor
decisions (disaster theme) or to divert attention (distraction theme), but
television news more often presents it as using aggressive or confrontational
tactics (war theme).
As coded here, most television stories about public relations were
neutral in their overall tone. The discrepancy between this and the findings of
those who have examined print coverage of PR may be due in part to
methodological differences. In Bishop's study of newspapers (1988), he claims
that most coverage of PR is positive, but his operationalization seems to be
based solely on the societal status of the user involved. Spicer (1993) reports
that the majority of the newspaper and magazine items he examined portrayed
public relations negatively. However, Spicer's method for determining tone was
simply to collapse his thematic analysis into categories where the disaster,
distraction, and merely themes were considered negative; schmooze, war, and hype
were considered neutral; and the challenge theme was considered positive.
Applying the same procedure to the present television data gives results more
nearly in line with Spicer's, although the tv stories with themes he treated as
neutral still outnumber those he would consider negative. In a way, the Spicer
method serves to validate the technique of coding the tone of individual stories
used here. By either definition, television news tends to take a neutral tone
in reporting on public relations and it appears that television is more neutral
than the print media in covering the field. It should also be noted, though,
that television stories with a negative tone were more common than those with a
Interestingly, the ratio of tv stories about public relations that
were negative in tone to those that were positive is very close to the breakdown
of negative to positive found in research on television coverage of advertising
(Keenan, 1995) and of general business news (Dominick, 1984). In the present
study, 36.7 percent of the stories were negative and 8.9 percent were positive,
for a ratio of 4.1 to one. For advertising stories, the numbers were nearly
identical, 32.4 percent negative and 8.3 percent positive (Keenan, 1995), a
ratio of 3.9 to one; and for general business stories, 54.1 percent were found
to be negative and 10 percent were positive (Dominick, 1984), a ratio of 5.4 to
It would seem, then, that television news is fairly consistent in the
tone it uses. The ratio of negative to positive is only slightly higher for
public relations news than for news about advertising, and is actually lower
than that found for stories about general business topics. On this dimension,
concerns about the public relations profession receiving unfair treatment by the
media can find little support when PR coverage is compared to the coverage of
other business areas. Or it may be that public relations is not singled out and
that all business coverage on television news has an unduly negative tone.
Finally, in reporting on public relations and public relations
practices, network television most often assumes what Grunig and Hunt (1984)
would call the press agentry model of how public relations works and what the
profession involves. That is, most stories presented PR as a means of creating
media attention for the user. Far fewer stories presented public relations as
disseminating useful and objective information (the public information model) or
using research inputs to structure persuasive campaigns (the two-way asymmetric
model). Only two stories, both reporting on politicians as users, were based on
the two-way symmetric model of public relations as involving research and
balanced compromise in dealing with publics and reaching decisions.
These findings regarding different models of public relations are
generally consistent with what has been found in examinations of the print
media's coverage of PR (Bishop, 1988; Spicer, 1993) and with estimates of which
models are actually used by practitioners (Grunig & Grunig, 1992). The press
agentry model was dominant in the two print studies to date, and Grunig and
Grunig's summary of research on public relations organizations across industries
indicates that press agentry is the most commonly used model.
The one model that seems under-represented in television coverage of
public relations is the two-way symmetric model. Grunig and Grunig (1992)
suggest the public information, two-way asymmetric, and two-way symmetric models
are used approximately equally in the practice of public relations. Yet in
reporting on the field, the network television news stories evaluated here use
the two-way symmetric model only twice, while the public information model is
used 16 times, and the two-way asymmetric model is used 18 times.
Summary and Future Research Directions
The coverage of public relations by network television news
emphasizes certain users over others. The attention given to foreign
governments and to politicians is probably out of proportion to the spending,
employment, effort, or other measures of their actual importance to the public
relations profession. But as entities that regularly receive detailed media
coverage, it is not surprising that the public relations practices of foreign
governments and politicians are reported on more than those of corporations or
other users less subject to media scrutiny in general.
A tentative conclusion about network television's coverage of public
relations is that it is more objective and less antagonistic toward public
relations than coverage in the print media is. The fact that most tv stories
take a neutral tone while Spicer (1993) has found the majority of print items to
be negative supports such a deduction. In combination with other research that
has looked at television coverage of different areas (e.g., Dominick, 1984;
Keenan, 1995), the findings reported here suggest that network television may
have an anti-business bias, but that public relations is not covered any more
negatively than other businesses.
Questions and accusations about the attitudes of journalists
influencing how public relations is covered can't be answered by content
analysis alone. But if it is true that television coverage of PR is less
negative than print coverage, a useful direction for future research would be to
extend the line of work that has measured the feelings of print journalists
toward public relations (e.g., Aronoff, 1975; Kopenhaver, 1985; Carroll, 1994)
to include those in the television industry, and to see whether what seems to be
less negative coverage is correlated with less negative attitudes on their part.
Matters of audience effects and perceptions of public relations are
not answerable by simple examination of media content either. Survey research
is called for as a means of relating exposure to such content to opinions and
beliefs about the field. Measures of how public relations is perceived in terms
of who uses it, its purposes, how it is practiced, and its social and economic
contributions would be useful in a framework for considering media effects based
on cultivation analysis or other theoretical perspectives. Among the
interesting questions to be asked in this vein would be whether there are
differences in attitudes about public relations between those who rely mostly on
television versus those who rely on print as their primary news source.
Research and writing about media coverage of public relations, the
relationship of journalistic attitudes to the kind of coverage public relations
receives, and the impact of this coverage on audience ideas about public
relations is sparse. The study described above contributes to the literature by
describing how network television news has reported on public relations topics,
presenting some thoughts about the meaning of this coverage, and suggesting
strategies for further research.
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Number of Stories by Year
Users of Public Relations
Foreign Government 17
U.S. Government Agency 5
U.S. Military 3
Oil Company 3
Interest Group 3
Tobacco Industry 2
Soft Drink Company 2
Chemical Company 1
Waste Disposal Company 1
Labor Union 1
Health Care 1
No User Given 12
Public Relations Professional 8
Foreign Government Representative 5
U.S. Government Representative 3
Company Spokesperson 3
Interest Group Spokesperson 3
Trade Group Spokesperson 2
Military Public Affairs Officer 2
Political Press Secretary 2
Company Opponent 2
Advertising Professional 1
Television Executive 1
Models of Public Relations
Press Agentry 31
Two-way Asymmetric 18
Public Information 16
Two-way Symmetric 2