Citizen Journalism: friend or foe in public relations?

It is well-known that journalists and public relations practitioners have a love-hate relationship.  They need each other to survive in the cut-throat world they work in, yet neither is willing to openly acknowledge this and instead go on pretending they are adversaries.  But what happens if we throw a new player into the game?  Or more accurately, players.

With the lessening of the digital divide, citizen journalism is reaching new heights.  Differing from conventional journalism, citizen journalism is providing the public with an alternative.  The public has gained access to the communication tools of the 21st century and has promptly altered the traditional, dated mass media outlets as we know them.  As opposed to this traditional mass media, where it is held that journalists should report on what people need to know rather than what they want to know, citizen journalism is by the people for the people.

The relationship between public relations practitioners and journalists is based on the public relations practitioner feeding the journalist information about an organisation or event for a story, and in return the journalist gives them media exposure.

So with an understanding of the traditional relationship between media and public relations and an understanding of what is citizen journalism, naturally the question arises – is citizen journalism a friend or foe in public relations?

Friend? The beauty of citizen journalism, is that people can comment on and discuss issues that matter to them.  This provides a great insight to public relations practitioners trying to gauge the feelings and perceptions of their target publics

Citizen journalists also have the inclination to cover themes and places often ignored or forgotten by mainstream media.  This is called hyperlocal coverage.  Once again a benefit for organisations trying to reach narrowly defined target publics.

In addition, citizen journalism is often described as a watchdog for journalists.  They report either the other side of the story or the inaccuracies presented in the media.  This is a fantastic tool for public relations to tap into to ensure their publics are getting the full story and not just what the media sees fit to report.

Foe?  On the flip-side of the above arguments, there is of course a negative.  Although comment and discussion is enabled, the reporting can be fragmented and inconclusive.  This could mean that a message is either missed, misunderstood or lost in cyberspace and therefore of no benefit whatsoever to public relations as no-one is going to receive the message. Also, as a watchdog, citizen journalism can work against an organisation even when, or perhaps particularly when, traditional media are in support. 

Pacific Brands found this out the hard way when they were slammed in numerous blogs over cutting jobs in Australia and moving manufacturung overseas.  Whilst the organisation’s public relations practitioners worked over time to try and project key messages and mitigate negative publicity, citizen journalists all over Australia were writing about the realities of the organisation’s move.  In this case citizen journalists and traditional media were united and no stone was left unturned as they lashed out at the organisation.  Was it warrented?  Were there strategies that could have been implemented to lessen the attacks?  Maybe.  Maybe the organisation should have been more proactive and used citizen journalism to aid their cause.  I’m not sure that it would have been effective, but it’s a thought…

Perhaps it is not as easy as classifying citizen journalism as either a friend or foe.  Perhaps there is more to it than that.  Perhaps, as Dr Axel Bruns suggests,  citizen journalism can enhance traditional journalism – not replace it.  As such should public relations take advantage of both mediums?  Should it exploit the diversity of citizen journalism as deliberative journalism with hyperlocal coverage?  And also still rely on traditional journalism to get the organisation in the view of the general public?  I think so.  I believe that there is a happy medium and public relations stands to benefit greatly from both.  It’s all about knowing who the publics are and where they source their news from.  Once that’s sorted, the rest is up to them anyway!

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3 Comments »

  1. hstatham Said:

    Erin, your blog was really interesting to read from the point of view of someone with no public relations experience. I thought your consideration of how citizen journalism can both positively and negatively impact the work of a PR agent, represented an interesting interpretation of the double edged sword that Bruns describes in Blogs, Wikipedia Second Life and Beyond. Since citizen journalism is both a recognised strength and a weakness in your industry, do you have any ways you intend to overcome it when you practice?

    From weighing up your arguments, I couldn’t help wonder about the advertising potential that you could harness from this online active community. Since citizen journalism is a self-moderated industry, surely as a PR agent, you could capitalise upon this and moderate articles written about your brand yourself. Since citizen journalism is based upon communal evaluation, to which the community will foreground works of high value, is there scope for PR agents to manipulate this process? While I recognise this is not in line with current practice, there appears to be some benefits for PR agents to adopt an editorial role in the online community. In traditional hierarchies, a large company or competitor could criticise your agency and you had no recourse against them apart from a lawsuit. Surely, now there is potential for people to manipulate the Internet, so that only the favourable articles are more actively available in search engines.

  2. curlyramsey Said:

    I found your discussion on citizen journalism, particularly in the context of public relations, a highly interesting and well researched read. You clearly and cleverly highlighted how citizen journalism and public relations both complement (friend) each other and clash (foe) in the digital world. And it was this argument that got me thinking:

    Citizen Journalism: friend or foe in the music industry?

    The ideas you purported throughout your discussion can be seen just as clearly within the music industry. It is just as easy for a citizen journalist to condemn an artist’s work as it is for them to worship it and make this known to the world. Album reviews illustrate the perfect example. While one citizen journalist argues that a particular album is the defining point in an artist’s career, another may claim that the artist has hit rock bottom. It seems that citizen journalism is neither friend, nor foe, in the music business, but a source that aids other citizens in forming their own opinions.

    In my discussion of citizen journalism I stated, “The rise of blogging has also allowed for a wider audience to discuss and become involved in the music of particular artists.” The points I have made above expand upon this point and highlight both the positive and negative effects citizen journalism has on this aspect.

    Thanks for your help. Great article!

  3. […] relations practitioners in the wake of the produsage phenomenon – citizen journalism.  As I previously discussed, citizen journalism opens up communication lines for citizens a.k.a. the organisation’s publics […]


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