The Future of Investigative Reporting and the role of PR

The future of investigative reporting is top of mind for many journalists these days. That’s because traditional newsrooms, where much of this reporting used to stem from, are shrinking – and because of a couple of movies that came out last year.

It all made us think about how public relations can help fill the void. As newsrooms shrink, our ranks are swelling. We see stories all the time that need to be told. So how can we help?

Much of the recent chatter around the fate of investigative journalism stems from “Spotlight,” the film about reporters at The Boston Globe who blew the lid off the Catholic church’s sexual-abuse scandal. In addition to earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, it led Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor at The New York Times, to publish a two-part series on the future of local investigative reporting. It was also the primary subject of a fascinating interview with David Simon, creator of “The Wire” and a former reporter at the Baltimore Sun. Another movie out last year, “Truth,” focused on the 2004 CBS 60 Minutes report investigating then-President George W. Bush’s military service.

Both of these movies depict public-relations professionals as well as journalists. Though where the journalists are shown as heroes, our counterparts come off looking like the jerks who are trying to prevent them from finding the truth, or from publishing it.

But that’s not all we do, and in fact I’d argue that just as often our job is to help get the truth out there. I could point to countless examples, from my last decade working in the PR industry, where PR professionals have, on behalf of clients, helped reporters pursue articles on topics such as corruption in government, human rights violations abroad, prisoners wrongly accused and gaps in federal investigations. So how do we do it?

  • Compelling Research: Here at Greentarget we regularly use research to build compelling points-of-view and credentials for our professional-services clients. It can also be a tool for uncovering telling information. Just last week, a research study by the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AH&LA) and Penn State University revealed that much of the activity on Airbnb centers around homes owned by professional or commercial landlords, rather than individuals or families renting out their primary homes. While a spokesperson from Airbnb refuted the study, claiming that the majority of Airbnb hosts are middle-class people who occasionally share their homes, the media has had a field day with the investigative report (it’s been covered in almost every business and top-tier publication), and it’s also given the hotel industry (which has been battling Airbnb’s ascension, with little success), a platform to talk about Airbnb’s unfair practices and the potentially illegal activity it enables.
  • Background Interviews: Taking the time to simply inform reporters of the key facts in an important story can pay dividends. We do our homework, then find reporters who have written about these issues and let them know about new angles they should be aware of. In advance of conversations with reporters, we prep our clients with key messages to help them drive home the stories they’re looking to get out there. More often than not after such a conversation, a reporter is intrigued enough to take the next step by digging deeper and finding other sources who are willing to talk. Following the background call, we stay connected with the reporter, and provide regular updates on new developments. This eventually leads to them pursuing a story.
  • Op-Eds: If clients are looking for a quick vehicle to get their POV out there on an issue they believe warrants public attention, especially if it’s tied to a timely event, an op-ed is a great one to consider. As an example, in advance of the Supreme Court making a decision to hear a particular case on behalf of one of our clients, we penned an op-ed that incorporated a personal plea as to why it was crucial for the Supreme Court to hear their story. The article was published by USA Today, and while the Supreme Court ultimately decided not to pursue the case, our client was thrilled to have the opportunity to get his plea out there to the public.

We’re not journalists, but our job is to work with them – usually in a way that furthers our clients’ business goals. Sometimes those interests are in opposition. But they don’t always have to be. Some information needs to be out there – for the sake of the community, for the sake of justice, for the sake of our own consciences. And nobody knows how to get information out there like we do.

Since joining Greentarget ten years ago, Lisa has found great success as a highly-effective account manager and media relations expert.

During college basketball season, she can be found cheering on her Indiana University Hoosiers.