If you ask journalists what they think of PRs the response is likely to be colourful. Yet I know (and so do my colleagues) just how much they rely on us. The hostility is snobbish, but it is also phony. Charlie Beckett, the director of POLIS, argues the time has come to kiss and make up.
Journalists work under immense pressure. They have little time to research and to produce original insight and scoops. That much of Nick Davies’ book Flat Earth News is surely accurate. The investigative journalist was always a romantic exception. That’s even more the case in today’s cost-conscious, time-driven world. By necessity, and in fact, most of what journalists write has been mediated by PR professionals or other media sources. There’s a lot of recycling – Davies’ “churnalism” – going on.
Does this mean that the content put out is untrustworthy? I don’t think so. Neither does Beckett. He points out that aspects of PR resemble journalism. Trust, reliability and credibility are the keys to sustaining relationships between PRs and journalists and journalists and their audiences. He adds on PR:
“It’s a profession, but one that you succeed in through natural cunning, charm, instinct, hard work and skill rather than thanks to qualification, wisdom or virtue.”
Much like journalism was before everyone seemed to need a degree to get started.
He has no time for those who take the moral high ground – neither do I – to endow PR with a deep social purpose. As he insightfully comments:
“It is a trade that can service both good (charities, market competition, political campaigns) or bad (Nazis, tobacco companies, celebrities).”
Not that I’d knock tobacco firms, or even celebrities. I’d work for the first and would like to be the second. What’s more, to be frank, there aren’t many regimes which I’d turn down out of hand either. I’d be asking myself much the same questions as a lawyer would, and inclined to give a lawyerish answer: everyone deserves to have their case put truthfully and well.
Beckett quotes from Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy’s new book PR A Persuasive Industry?: Spin, Public Relations and the Shaping of the Modern Media:
“PR is a wholly legitimate aid to the exchange of information and ideas in society … the right to persuade is inseparable from democracy and the workings of a free market … Without PR the modern media would collapse.”
It seems their book examines how the internet enables “citizen media” to investigate the claims of both journalists and PRs. Beckett believes that journalists will have to become more open and honest about where they get their information from. This transparency will manifest itself, he says, through hyperlinks and disclosures but it will be policed by the accountability mechanisms that thrive on the Internet.
“Both journalists and consumers will become more media literate. The free media market online will drive out false information as trusted sources prove their worth over time and attract the most traffic.
“Yes, lies and puffs will fly around the Internet as fast as your broadband connection can carry them. But the evidence is that they are hunted down or ignored much more quickly than they were when they were in newspapers or on TV. Amidst the welter of digital information there is a flight towards quality, authority and reliability. That is why BBC Online is thriving.
“Journalists have nothing to fear from this process. Public Relations has nothing to fear either, if it is honest. Together they should continue their mutually sceptical and dependent relationship.”
Charlie Beckett puts it beautifully.