Confession: “churnalism” and me

I’ll come clean.  Once upon a time, in a previous life, I was employed by a PR agency which promoted well known consumer products on behalf of some very large companies.  The accounts I worked on ranged from toys to swimwear to toothpaste to toilet bleach.

Much of the job consisted of writing a press release about our “fantastic, fabulous, latest” wristwatch or bikini  and sending it out, with a product shot, to hundreds of magazines and local newspapers.  We knew that if the pictures were good, and the copy reasonably literate, hard pressed publications would simply reproduce them almost word for word.   In one case, a large group of syndicated local newspapers used to publish everything we sent  –  lock, stock and barrel – which meant we only had to use one stamp to get free plugs all round the country!  

Our clients were suitably impressed with the coverage.  For peanuts, their brands were getting reams of advertising and apparent editorial endorsement, Sales would rise, our contracts would be renewed and promotions would be given.   No one seemed remotely bothered that the reader was being misled.  In fact, “more fool them” was the thinking!

Feeling distinctly queasy with this non job, I left the world of commercial PR and took my few skills elsewhere.  But the memory has lingered on and is one of the many reasons why I feel so uneasy about product placement on television and why the recent talk of “churnalism” has rung so many bells.   

And how often is it used to promote, not just products,  but political messages?


One response to “Confession: “churnalism” and me

  1. I don’t have too much of a problem with the fact that companies send out great copy and great pictures as part of their sales effort and I don’t have too much of a problem with fashion and ‘lifestyle’ mags churning that stuff out: surely no one really buys Grazia or Now thinking they’re getting anything more than mindless entertainment?

    What I have a problem with is news churnalism. PR from drug companies published as health and science news. ‘Research’ from lobby groups published uncritically. Paid lobbyists rolled out as ‘spokespeople’ on an issue. For democracy to work we need a reliable source of information about our world so people can participate effectively in their own government. Instead, we see the braying of Daily Mail et al infecting government decision-making and lies being published without intervention. And the PCC is a joke: the complaints process is so laborious that many vulnerable groups are excluded from it.

    I think all political advertising should be banned; it adds absolutely zero to the democratic process and consumes massive resources. Without it, parties would be less in thrall to the donors that fund their media campaigns and the public would be forced to engage with issues rather than be wound up by misinformation, distortion and outright lies.

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