St Valentine offers up a good spin on an old story

This article first appeared in the Irish Times

Sex sells. Especially on Valentines Day, and especially for a public relations company, or so an examination of Valentine-themed stories this week suggests, writes Gerard Cunningham.

Before becoming famous for the phone-hacking investigation that led to the Leveson inquiry and the demise of the News of the World, Guardian journalist Nick Davies was best known for “Flat Earth News”. In his 2008 book, Davies exposed “churnalism”, the tendency of overstretched newsrooms to rely on press releases.

Every good press release needs a hook, and Valentine’s Day presents an obvious opportunity for the spin doctors to get their clients’ names in print. For the informal survey, twenty Valentine’s Day themed press releases were chosen, and their success measured across seven newspapers on Valentine’s Day, Tuesday 14 February.

Without doubt, the most successful Valentine’s PR stunt came from People for the Ethical Treatment (PETA), the at times controversial animal rights group. Peta, infamous for press stunts usually involving naked women, announced a Valentine’s Day anti-fur protest on Grafton Street. The images of the protestors (two men and two women) wearing red briefs and carrying strategically placed heart-shaped cards, featured in three newspapers, including on one front page.

A press release from a Wexford-based computer security firm warned of the dangers of exploring “romantic” links on the internet. Fake Valentine’s day card emails – or websites purporting to offer cards to send to loved ones – could be used to download malicious code, the company warned. Even inside the “closed garden” of Facebook, an unexpected message from a member of the opposite sex should be treated with caution. The story made the lead in the Star’s Money Matters column, and also featured in the Daily Mirror.

Oddly enough, neither paper mentioned the dangers of responding to advertisements and emails offering “Russian brides”, although it also featured in the original press release.

The Star also turned a survey on workplace romances by a recruitment website into a full page feature. Like most PR-generated “survey” stories, the reliability of the figures is questionable, since they are based on answers by users of the website. Accuracy is further hampered by being based on a self-selected sample. Despite this surveys remain a popular PR tactic, perhaps trading on the credibility built up by political polling. The Daily Mail ran the same story.

Another poll showing Liam Neeson is the most fancied man among Irish women also fared well, earning a page lead in the Examiner. The fact the story allowed the picture editor to run a photo of “The Grey” star probably helped.

In fifth place came a health promotion called Love your Lungs, encouraging people to exercise more. The story featured heavily in the Independent, with quotes quotes from Olympian Ronnie Delancey. A similar promotion from the Irish Heart Foundation, featuring healthy eating and exercise tips, was turned into an article in a Daily Mail health column.

In conclusion, and unsurprisingly, sex sells. Near-nude couples, racy insights into workplace romances, the dangers of romancing on the web, and a report marking “The Grey” star Liam Neeson as the sexiest man in Ireland all fared well.

Less successful were two related “surveys£ tying in Valentine’s Day with the Leap Year tradition where women proposed marriage to men on 29 February. One suggested 46% of men would say yes if their partner proposed, while the other said only 10% of women would consider proposing. The first managed only a single sidebar mention in the Star, with no credit given to the corporate sponsor, while the other went unmentioned.

Press releases highlighting political issues fared even worse, as did a road safety message from the Road Safety Authority (featuring a play on “speed dating” and the dangers of speeding) and a charity fundraiser from Bothar. A curious “Hug a Robot” story from EU-commission sponsored research into “robot-child interaction”, also went unreported.

Tabloid titles were most likely to make use of the PR material, with both the Irish Daily Star and Irish Daily Mirror using five or the 20 selected releases. Of the two, the Star was the more enthusiastic, turning three of the stories into page leads, while the Mirror was content to use four out of five as “filler” material to fill a sidebar.

Meanwhile, the Irish Daily Mail used only two of the twenty releases, the same number as the Irish Examiner and the Irish Independent. None of the releases were used by the Irish Times or the Evening Herald.

A 2009 DCU class project on “Flat Earth News” suggested that between 11% and 21% of all news stories came from press releases, and up to half of all stories contained PR material. How much of this a bad thing can be a matter of editorial debate. An announcement by a government minister or a leading opposition politician, even if in the form of a press release, may still be news, for example. Different definitions of “churnalism” lead to different results. But the results do suggest editors need to be mindful of over-reliance on press releases.