Ira Basen addresses challenges facing both public relations and media representatives

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Ira Basen of CBC Radio’s “Spin Cycles” series fame recently addressed attendees at CPRS Toronto’s annual general meeting. Ira has kindly granted permission for his speaking notes to be reproduced on PR Conversations.

Challenges facing both public relations and media representatives
CPRS Toronto’s AGM, May 24

It’s been an interesting day for me. Earlier today I did a workshop about spin for a big meeting that the Canadian Association of Journalists is having up the street. And now I’m talking to the CPRS. I have to figure it’s the first time anyone has done that kind of doubleheader on the same day.

Anyway, I’m gratified that my series Spin Cycles seems to have resonated with both journalists and PR people. It was designed obviously for a general audience, but I was also hoping that the press and PR would pay attention to the issues that I raised. The idea for the series came to me several years ago. After spending about 20 years as a producer at CBC Radio, I began to get very interested in the nexus between public relations and press, and the way that relationship affects the news we see, hear and read. And that interest, I should say, was sparked by a growing frustration over guests that came on my radio program who had obviously been media trained and they could deliver their key messages and little else. And I was curious about why and how that came about, and in general, about the role public relations played in the packaging and presenting of news these days. And though I obviously come at this issue from the perspective of a journalist, I like to think that I am an equal-opportunity critic, as harsh on the failings of my team as I am of yours. And I think was pretty harsh on my team earlier today at the CAJ, so I hope gives me some license to say a critical word or two to you tonight.

I should say that Spin Cycles is the first in-depth look at the public relations industry that CBC Radio has done since the early 1980s. At that time, a woman named Joyce Nelson did a multi-part series on PR for the program “Ideas.” It was called The Sultans of Sleaze. She later turned it into a book of the same name, and the title really tells you everything you need to know about her approach. The PR industry, according to Nelson, played a major role in polluting the environment, propping up corrupt dictators, subverting democracy…you get the idea.

Now Joyce Nelson was a good journalist, but Sultans of Sleaze was very much a point-of-view series, and even though there was nothing really inaccurate about what she had to say, by focusing solely on the negatives, by emphasizing only what was bad about PR, it would be fair to say that her approach, although clearly lacking in balance, was pretty typical for journalists of her time.

My approach was, I like to think, somewhat more sophisticated than that, and I thought that in general that journalists’ attitude towards PR had matured somewhat since the Sultans of Sleaze. But one of the things that surprised me when I was doing Spin Cycles was just how much that view of PR still prevails among some journalists, at least at the CBC. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t really have a producer on this project until I had already finished almost all my interviews and assembled a few of the programs. I was then assigned one of CBC Radio’s most experienced and well-respected producers to help me shape the six programs in the series.

When I was going over my first program with her, a program that focused largely on the early days of PR, she was surprised that I was seeing positives and negatives in public relations. In her mind, people in PR were paid liars, and that was the end of the story. She did not believe they played any useful role in the information food chain. Several of the people I interviewed for the series were former CBC friends and colleagues who have made the jump to PR. She honestly could not understand how those people could sleep at night.

I told her that my approach was more nuanced than that, and if she was going to give me a hard time every time I saw something useful in PR, or every time I failed to point out the fundamental dishonesty of PR people, it was going to be hard to work together. I also suggested that I thought most people, including many journalists, were not as negative about PR as she was. This last point was the hardest one for her to buy. She came back the next day to report that she had talked to a whole bunch of people; I’m assuming she meant other CBC people, and they all agreed with her.

And so I found myself in the unusual position of having to be constantly defending public relations to another journalist. And even though I could never see myself going over to the other side, I do not condemn those who do, or necessarily consider myself morally superior to them. And even though many journalists get frustrated by PR people and might wish they were not part of their working lives, the reality is that the role played by PR in journalism today is probably larger than it ever has been, and getting bigger all the time. And it’s probably time that everybody just accepted that and began working towards a more mature and honest relationship than currently exists.

As for my producer, in the end, after working with her on the six programs, I don’t think that her opinion of PR improved all that much, but she was at least willing to concede that there were more problems in journalism today than she had originally realized, and that in a world swimming in spin, journalists are often part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

And that’s a start. Because what is really important for me is that practitioners of both public relations and journalism understand that we individually and collectively have serious problems that need to be addressed, and that these are not good times for either of us. Or perhaps I should amend that. From what I can see, from a financial perspective, the PR industry overall is doing quite nicely, thank you. The demand for the services you provide is growing, return on investment is generally healthy, and employment in your industry is on the rise.

Meanwhile, media companies are doing better financially, than they would like you to believe. But the newspaper business, particularly in the U.S., is facing real economic challenges. The employment picture is not healthy. The number of journalists in newsrooms in all media is declining, or at least it’s not keeping up with the voracious appetite for more content on an ever-growing number of media platforms. Doing more with less is the mantra in just about every North American newsroom these days.

But the challenges for both of us are not primarily economic. They are related to a decline in the public’s perception of the honesty and integrity that we bring to our jobs every day. Now I could take a cheap shot here and say that that is nothing new when you are talking about public relations. PR has had a PR problem since Ivy Lee invented modern public relations in the early years of the last century, and even before that in the bad old press agent days of the century before that.

And the current century has not started well for PR, either. In the past few years, there have been serious questions raised about the role played by big PR firms in the creation of astroturf organizations – fake grass roots groups that are designed to influence governments and public opinion, while concealing the identities of the people and industries that are actually funding and supporting them. This kind of deception is specifically prohibited in the codes of ethics of both the PRSA and the CPRS, but the temptation seems too hard to resist for many PR firms.

You can see these astroturf organizations all over the current debate over climate change. They are often perversely named. In Canada, the Friends of Science is an anti climate-change group, partly funded by the oil industry. Their ideas fly in the face of the overwhelming scientific consensus on the issue. Few reputable scientists would view the people involved in this organization as their friends. Quite the contrary. Jim Hoggan, a climate-change crusader who runs his own PR shop in Vancouver, has used words like disgraceful, despicable and criminal to describe the activities of some PR firms around the climate change debate. He argues that the ultimate objective of their communications strategy is not to inform the public, but to confuse it. He sees the role played by PR in this issue as the latest in a long string of missteps for the PR industry that includes being on the wrong side of the truth, and ultimately of public opinion, on critical issues such as smoking, auto safety, asbestos, pesticides and others. All of these helped bring the PR industry into further disrepute.

Also recently, PR firms have been exposed setting up fake blogs to promote their clients, and paying other, “independent” bloggers to shill for their products. In neither case has there been an appropriate amount of transparency and disclosure. And that has serious consequences that I will return to in a moment.

Meanwhile, PR critics, like my Spin Cycles producer, love stories like this. Earlier this year, PR Week sponsored a debate among British PR practitioners in London. The question on the table was “PR has a duty to tell the truth.” The motion was defeated 138 votes to 124. And to add insult to injury, PR Week editorialized that “the fact that PR people admit they need to lie occasionally is a sign of growing honesty and confidence in what they do.” Now what kind of PR is that?

PR has also been taking some flack over the issue of “fake news,” the ever-increasing use of unattributed PR-supplied video in newscasts. Many people see this problem as yet another black mark on the public relations industry. I don’t necessarily agree. I don’t see how you can blame PR firms for sending out the best-quality VNRs and b-roll that they can. That’s their job. It is the job of reporters and editors to do real journalism and not run press releases masquerading as news. But too often they do. As one American critic wrote, “criticizing PR people for trying to manipulate the news is like criticizing sharks for eating other fish.” It’s what they do.

But lately, journalists have been joining PR in the doghouse. The list of recent ethical meltdowns in mainstream media is long and depressing. We could start with Jayson Blair of the New York Times who spent years fabricating stories. Then there was the BBC, which seriously mishandled the case of Dr. David Kelly, the whistle-blowing weapons expert who wound up killing himself after he was hung out to dry by the British government and the press. There was Dan Rather at CBS whose report on George Bush’s Vietnam record was based on documents that proved not to be authentic. Or the Washington press corps that failed to ask tough questions about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And in Canada, we had the sad spectacle of journalists accepting erroneous leaks from anonymous intelligence sources, and by doing so, they helped smear the reputation of an innocent man named Maher Arar.

Now, given that litany of serious errors in judgment and ethical lapses on the part of PR people and journalists, it would be easy to conclude that we have both somehow lost our way in recent years, that we have forgotten how to live by our respective codes of ethical conduct . But I think what has changed is not so much how we behave, but how easy it is for us to get caught. We are under scrutiny as never before from people who closely monitor what we do, and who are only too happy to expose our mistakes to the world in print, in their blogs or on their websites. It has become a lot harder for all of us to find a place to hide these days.

Let’s take the Dan Rather story for example. Here’s what would have happened five or 10 years ago. Some Republicans would have objected to the story and claimed the documents used by Rather were fake. CBS would have done a cursory investigation and declared that they stand by the story, and it would have likely died right there. But this time, CBS wasn’t able to stand by their story because their critics kept getting louder and louder, the investigative work continued on various blogs and websites, until CBS and Dan Rather were left with no choice but to admit they were wrong, apologize and retract the story, something almost unheard of in television journalism.

Now in some ways, all this attention is nothing new for people who work in public relations. Your work has always been under the microscope from the media and from various critics who have always been happy to pounce on your misdeeds. But I can tell you that for the mainstream media, this added scrutiny is a new and rather uncomfortable phenomenon. We are forever preaching accountability, transparency and disclosure to the people we cover. It turns how that we don’t like it so much when those same demands are turned back on us. This new world will take some getting used to, but in the end, it will probably be the best thing that ever happened to us.

In the meantime, however, the mainstream press now also has a PR problem. It continues to be seen, in the eyes of too many people, as a collection of plagiarizers, fabulists and cowards, who are too easily intimidated by power, and dare I say it, spinners of tales, not much different from practitioners of public relations. More and more people are prepared to believe that what they read on a blog or website or see on The Daily Show is more credible than what the read in their newspapers or see on TV. And that’s not good.

Now some people in public relations see the problems of the press as a business opportunity. Last year, Richard Edelman, CEO of Edelman Public Relations told a PR audience in New York. “In a world where you don’t have a belief in a single source, you don’t have a Walter Cronkite anymore, PR is a discipline on the rise. PR plays much better in a world that lacks trust.”

Richard Edelman may be right about that, but there clearly is a bigger issue at stake here. Let’s not kid ourselves by pretending that a world without trust is a world where any of us really want to live. To begin with, it is bad for the health of our democratic experiment. Democracy requires an informed and engaged public, but it is hard to be engaged in a political process you fundamentally believe to be fraudulent. And sadly, we see signs of that disengagement everywhere we look across the political landscape.

Democracy, by the way, also requires a vigorous and independent free press that is widely accessible and widely accessed. It requires a conversation amongst its participants and the press is where that conversation plays out. And that conversation has to be widely shared, which is why newspapers, read by 11 million Canadians every day, will always be more important than blogs.

But let’s take this out of the political realm and talk about commerce. When the public no longer believes what they hear from anyone, when people think they are being spun from all quarters…from their politicians, business leaders, and even the press… when the dark hand of PR is seen behind everyone and everything, I would argue that ultimately that is bad for the business you’re in, and the business I’m in.

Take earned media, for example. Earned media depends on the ability of a third party, and historically, that party has been a mainstream media outlet, to sell your message for you. It rests on the assumption that people won’t believe what you say about yourself, so you need someone else to say it for you. But that someone else has to be credible, or the net effect will be no better than advertising. What essentially happens in earned media is that PR hitches its wagon to the credibility of the press. But if people no longer believe what they are reading, hearing or seeing, if they regard the press as little more than corporate shills who regurgitate PR-generated material, then the net effect of your earned media will be significantly diminished.

Now some PR people would argue, “so what, we don’t need you anymore, anyway. These days we have lots of ways of getting our message to our audiences without having to go through the filter of the mainstream media.” And that’s true up to a point. But there are already troubling signs that PR is overplaying its hand, and the sins of the old media are being visited upon the new.

When I interviewed Richard Edelman in New York last year, and let me say that I think he is one of the most articulate and incisive voices in the PR world today, and I admire much of what he is trying to do, we talked about this growing trend towards fake astroturf organizations and he stressed his opposition to them and the importance of transparency and disclosure.

A few months later I read about WalMarting Across America. That was a blog written by a young American couple who spent last summer travelling across the U.S. in an RV, camping every night in a different WalMart parking lot. They wrote about their adventures in their blog. What they didn’t write about was that the whole project was paid for by WalMart, and their blog was not the adventures of a couple of intrepid travellers, but a clandestine marketing vehicle for WalMart. The brains behind the project was WalMart’s PR firm, Edelman Public Relations. Richard Edelman has since publicly apologized for his firm’s ethical lapse.

As I mentioned earlier, in the past few months there have also been cases of PR firms essentially paying payola to bloggers in return for product placement on their blogs. It is hard not to conclude that the innocence of new media is quickly being lost. The lack of transparency, openness and disclosure on the web will cause its credibility to erode just as it did for the mainstream media. How long will it be before the world without trust extends to the new media as well, and what now looks like a golden goose for PR will prove to be just another lost opportunity.

In a speech to a PR seminar last year, Alex Jones of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard warned that PR people should be careful what they wish for when it comes to the shrinking power and influence of the mainstream media. “It is bad for PR if serious journalism is swept away”, Jones argued. “There will be unlimited media choices in which PR people can embed advocacy messages. But the audience will be very fragmented in reach and in attention. In fact, the audience will be cynical about the messages and discount them. The Web may offer a chance for the unmediated delivery of messages but you lack the credibility of the journalistic filter.”

I agree with Alex Jones. It is in your interests as PR people, as well as mine as a mainstream journalist, to restore the credibility of the journalistic filter, to get our audiences to begin to trust us again. How do we do that?

What I say to my colleagues in journalism is that we need to be far more independent and courageous; that we need to stop chasing the false gods of “balance” and “objectivity”; worry less about beating the competition with fake scoops and concentrate on uncovering real ones. Instead of parroting government spin, we need to stand up to power, and be the people’s watchdogs not the government’s lapdogs; and we need to demand from ourselves the same level of accountability, openness and transparency as we demand from the people we cover.

This will not be easy in a world where there are fewer of us and more of you. Do the math. We have fewer people having to fill bigger and bigger news holes. No wonder that press release or VNR that might have once ended up in the recycling bin now has a much better chance of ending up on air or in the newspaper. It’s a sellers market for information out there.

To you in public relations, and I know that PR people don’t always appreciate advice from journalists, I say go back to first principles. Take a look at the Declaration of Principles issued by Ivy Lee a hundred years ago. It spoke of openness, accuracy and disclosure. Don’t be afraid to tell both sides of the story, the good and the bad. These days, the bad will come out anyway. How refreshing if it came from you, instead of looking like you were trying to cover it up. Forget about fake astroturf organizations and anything else that conceals sources of support and funding from the public. That doesn’t work anymore. There are too many people on too many websites looking to trip you up. You will be found out, and when that happens, the damage may be irreparable. How do you think WalMart feels about the money they sunk into WalMarting Across America. Talk about negative return on investment!

I’ve used the word transparency several times already today. Richard Edelman says it should be the basis for the practice of PR. But that view is not universally shared. Last month, there was an article in Advertising Age entitled “Transparency Schmasperancy: It’s Not the Business of PR.” The author was Eric Webber, who runs a PR shop in Austin Texas. Here’s his argument …”All this talk of being totally transparent is overrated and takes things entirely too far. PR practitioners shouldn’t be expected to be totally transparent. It’s not what our clients pay us for. We’re storytellers, and we are paid to tell a story that is in the best interests of our clients.” Instead of transparent, the author thinks PR people and their clients should strive to be translucent. “When I think of something translucent,” he writes, “I think of a warm, flattering light that lets you see almost, but not quite everything.”

It’s a pretty clever idea, this translucence business, too clever by half I think. Maybe it would have worked at one time, but it won’t work now. And more importantly, we shouldn’t want it to work. The world without trust is bad for PR, bad for journalism, and ultimately bad for us as citizens. We’ve each contributed to that erosion of trust. I think our challenge, and it would be nice to think this is at least one thing we can agree on, is to do everything in our power to repair the damage and restore that trust.

11 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks so much, Judy, for sharing Ira Basen’s remarks. His thought-provoking series on CBC was great to hear. The fact that he is continuing the discussion, with journalists as well as media relations folks, is most welcome. His comments on the relationship (and, in particular, his thoughts on transparency) need to keep percolating out there.

  2. Ira started checking out PR Conversations yesterday, Gary, so hopefully he’ll read your comment directly. (And thanks for stopping by yourself.)

    In talking to a lot of colleagues and friends in the biz (particularly agency folks), I’ve discovered that many agree with your assessment and found the series so worthwhile that they’ve purchased the CD-ROMS from the series. I hope Centennial College invested in a copy!

    The CDs include all of the material that was originally broadcasted, unlike the online MP3 files that have had some music and stuff edited out by the CBC for copyright reasons. Ira told me he won’t listen to the MP3 files, because some of the music was chosen so carefully and deliberately to fit that segment’s theme. We used the analogy of having the arm cut off your child. He’s quite the research and tone perfectionist, is Ira.

  3. Judy, this post is a great service to the very inspiration of this blog, thank you.
    In Italy, Ira’s CBC series was posted on the Ferpi website every week until it lasted and we have 2.500 individuals who visit site every day, most of these professionals, but also students and journalists.
    The issue of the relationship between journalists and pr professionals was very boldly and courageously addressed a few years ago by Anne Gregory, when she was president of the CIPR in the UK, and an intense debate began which unfortunately did not continue after she left her position.
    However, her initial drive was also taken up in other european countries like Belgium and Italy.
    In the latter country a half-result was achieved: a lively discussion on do’s and dont’s from both sides related to financial communication and reporting, which ended up in the pr associations (both the professional and the agency ones) pledged to behave differently, and the journalist guild approved amendments to their ethical code (enforced in this case by law).
    Have behaviours overall improved?
    Difficult to say, but certainly there is much more awareness, also amongst the public.
    An italian phd student at the Helsinki University, Chiara Valentini, is now completing a substantial research effort interviewing journalists and public relators in Italy on how one feels about the other and the results will lead to a paper which will be published (in english and italian) before the end of this year and will be used by Ferpi to open a public debate.
    Also, the other day a colleague friend of mine, a minor shareholder of one of Italy’s major corporations went to the latters AGM and, for the first time ever, interrogated the CEO on presumed questionable relationships the company was rumoured to have had with influential journalists (an act unheard of before by a public relator!).
    The interesting thing is that, following this act, the directors of communication of three of the major Italian quoted companies have in principle accepted the idea of participating to a public debate on the issue as long as the promoter was able to find as many senior journalists willing to participate. The themes, if this debate ever comes to be..but it is likely and will keep you posted, will probably echo many of the issues which were discussed only a few weeks ago in Vilnius (Lithuania) at the conference organized by that professional association on black pr and what to do about its increasing pervasivity )witht he participation of representatives of seven other european professional associations).
    As Ira says, I am not at all sure that questionable practices are increasing. I believe instead that it is the public awareness of these practices which is increasing, and that the two professions have every interest in being more attentive and responsible…that is if they want to avoid being completely disintermediated.

  4. On second thought, I ask you to consider the possibility that we may be victims of self caused myopia.
    We witness every day, at least in my country, the phenomenon by which when an important media, for lack of other news or just lazyness, picks up a story in some village of the upper northeast about two young teens who massacre their parents under the effect of crack, all of a sudden the whole country is inundated with reported cases of teens killing their parents under crack. Same thing with issues like pedophilia or incest. In Italy today, the whole elite (left, right and, most importantly, the vatican) is magnifying the basic values of family and at the same time we have never heard of such a huge concentration of violence within the family.
    These ‘media fads’ distract public policy and enlarge the gap between ‘real’ and ‘perceived’ realities, not helping acceptable relationships.
    Let’s take this analogy to our specific case.
    I think we all agree that the public relations profession has never been under so much fire from social and media criticism, both based on what we might consider as increasing unacceptable behaviours by our colleagues on behalf of their client/employers.
    What if, instead, such behaviours had always existed with the same or even more intensity, only that we cared less and were even less aware or attentive (also because we cared less)? What if all these discussions both professions are indulging in, plus of course the very important variable of social media, are in fact exposing to the open the flip side of the real nature of what we do?
    There are at least two potential, parallel and alternative consequences:
    a- an old italian adage says: ‘non lavare in pubblico i panni sporchi’ (do not wash your dirty laundry in public). Many of my senior colleagues continuosly caution me and warn me to stop (as they say) ‘slandering’ the pr profession;
    b- my position instead indicates that, when you wash your dirty linen in public, that public has the opportunity to see that your laundry is not really as dirty as he thought it was…and….your less adamant colleagues begin to realise that they better begin changing their behaviours less they end up going (to use another metaphor) down the basin with the dirty water.
    Your ideas?

  5. It does seem that we are doomed to have an endless debate about the relationship between journalists and PR professionals. The fact is that we have a mutually dependent relationship. The press cannot do its job without PR and PR needs the press. This is the piece Toni refers to that I wrote for Antispin.com

    Journalists and public relations people have always had an ambivalent relationship. Simply put, there is mutual dependence, but also mutual caution and that doesn’t lead to a trusting atmosphere.

    So why is this the case? Well, again simply put, the press, think that ‘PRs’ are there to block their way to the important people who they really want to talk to. Furthermore, ‘PRs’ don’t really tell the whole truth, they are always out to ‘spin’ a story to the advantage of their organisation. Consequently if the journalist takes them at their word and writes a story based on the ‘PRs’ material which turns out to be less than the whole truth, then it’s they, the journalist, who feels let down and a fool.

    Public Relations people on the other hand feel that the press always treats them with suspicion. Public relations staff may try their utmost to provide full information and represent their organisation’s case honestly as they see it. They then are profoundly disappointed when the copy they see appears to have twisted what they have said and their openness has been ‘used against them.’

    The result can be an unhelpful circle of insult and withdrawal of co-operation that does not serve either profession or the public well. For example, the Guardian (quoted in Farish 1998) has called public relations the ‘latrine of parasitic information’ and there are regular pokes at public relations people by the press who appear to delight in trivialising the profession. On the other hand, it is well known that offending journalists can be banned from political press briefings or from access to major celebrities if they don’t ‘play by the rules’ being set by the politicians or the celebrity PR person.

    An understanding of the pressures on both sides may help to bring some light to the situation.

    First the case for the press. About 70% of all public relations effort is devoted to what is called Marketing Public Relations. Essentially this is product promotion. Two major ways that products are promoted through public relations are first, straightforward media relations, i.e., persuading journalists to write about the product themselves or to accept the PRs copy about the product and second, product placement. Techniques used in marketing PR are quite varied from press briefings/conferences/one-to-one’s, to press releases, pre-written features, product sampling and media packs at exhibitions. The process entails “selling-in” the product to journalists. Here is one large source of frustration for journalists. They receive mountains of ‘stuff’ from PRs, often this stuff is scatter-gunned to as many journalists as possible through several channels – post, e-mail and fax. Journalists waste hours wading through stuff that isn’t relevant to them. Furthermore, they then have to field calls from PRs who ring to ask if they’ve received the release/e-mail/fax and who proceed to try to persuade them – usually 10 minutes away from press deadline, that they should use their material, even though it is of absolutely no interest to the publication readers.

    The journalist’s problem is compounded by structural changes in the media industry. The burgeoning media environment, with new on-line publications appearing by the hour, brings an insatiable requirement for content and copy. At the same time, pressures to follow a particular editorial line to maximise sales, the downsizing of the media workforce and the requirement to work in a multiple media environment (for example writing for hard copy and on-line versions of the same newspaper, or for TV and radio) means that journalists do not have the willingness or the time to source, check and write as they used to.

    The case for the public relations practitioner goes something like this. They are employed by consultancies or by organisations and they are expected to show loyalty to that organisation. They therefore have the same proprietor or editorial pressures that journalists have.

    They attempt to represent their organisations in the best light, but very few deliberately try to deceive the media – they wouldn’t last long in their jobs if they did. Sometimes PRs are not kept well informed by their own management and therefore tell the story as they know it is all good faith not knowing what they don’t know.

    PRs often work under great pressure, just like their journalist colleagues, especially in crises or when they are trying to meet a press deadline. They get pilloried by the press if they miss a deadline and they also get pilloried by the press if they do not have enough time to check all the relevant facts or get the full story because they are attempting to meet press deadline! Many PRs themselves come from a journalist background and they are ‘tempted’ to act like journalists themselves. The idea is to get the story out as they see it.

    Public relations people also feel resentful about the fact that the press are ready to pounce on negative stories, but are notably more reluctant to publish the good news. They are disappointed that journalists do not recognise that public relations does a tremendous service to society by opening up the channels of communication between organisation or campaign groups and the press. They would like some signal that they provide a useful service to the media and that in many cases journalists are more than glad that a PR has come up with a story to fill the page. Many public relations people recognise that some PR practitioner’s walk on the ethical boundary and sometimes slip over to the wrong side, but they resent the media’s hypocrisy in PR bashing when the media itself sometimes uses very dubious practices to ‘get the story’ and abuses the trust and good will invested in them in the supposed ‘public interest’.

    However, something must be right with the PR industry after all it is growing at an average of 17% per year and there are now more people in PR than in advertising.

    So what does all this mean for the media industry and for society in general?

    The pressures on the press and the effectiveness of the PR industry provides great opportunities for organisations. It is estimated that 80% of what appears in the business pages and up to 50% of general news has been generated or directly influenced by PR people. The insatiable appetite of the press for celebrity news and infotainment has meant that celebrity PR has burgeoned and the vast majority of copy for celebrity stories is mediated by PR. Indeed some PRs have undeniable power over the press because they can deny access to ‘A’ list celebrities if journalists are not compliant with their demands for copy clearance or stories of a particular type.

    What we are witnessing in many ways is what is call the PR-isation of the media. The independence of journalists can be called into question as they become more dependent on partisan sources, without this being made clear to their readers. This dependence means that their ability to question and analyse is being challenged by public relations practitioners who wield real power.

    Furthermore, the media industry itself is complicit. The proportion of news coverage is declining with more and more space being devolved to the purile, voyestic and trivial – the ‘dumbing down of the media’. Lazy journalists are happy to accept pre-written copy without challenge and take the easy option by not checking the facts for themselves or by not finding opposing voices.

    Meanwhile they indulge in the easy sport of PR bashing and there is little the PR industry can do given the rules of the press complaints committee where only individuals can take up grievances.

    It is time that the representatives of both the press and the PR industry has a serious discussion about the rules of engagement. It is not good for society that the critical faculties of the press are being blunted. Neither is it good that the genuine contribution of PR to the public agenda goes unrecognised. There is a mutual responsibility for a respectful distance to be kept between both professions and an equal responsibility for both to act respectfully towards the other, and that means honesty and integrity must prevail if society is to be served. It is not good that the media regurgitates uncritical, trivial pap. However it is also their responsibility to seek out those sources and stories, often through offices of a good PR, that will open up genuine and informed debate in society and bring into the agenda issues of genuine concern that are life-enhancing.

  6. Excellent post and – wow! – excellent comments. I couldn’t agree more with Ms. Gregory, hers is a very insightful summary of the PR-media relationship.

    As for Mr. Falconi’s question: this blog does an excellent job of raising salient issues without endulging in the “dirt.” Our profession, just as any other, need an ongoing debate, and someone needs the courage to expose “the bad and the ugly” and to define the “good.” I’d rather we do it ourselves than let others (e.g., journalists) do it for us.

  7. The CBC will be re-broadcasting Ira Basen’s six-part Spin Cycles series on its Sunday Edition show, beginning July 8th. For me, that’s 10 a.m. North American ET. I believe non-Canadians can live stream the show from the Radio One web page (my time zone is listed as Central).

    The advantage of listening to the live (re)broadcast is that you will get to hear all of the carefully chosen music accompanying the segments, some of which have been stripped out of the archived audio files for copyright reasons.

  8. So many points that could really be expanded into their own separate posts, wow. There is a tonnage of information to digest here. Basen makes a lot of sense to me. Without truth, there is no trust; without trust, both PR and journalism suffer. We need a return to ethics in both industries, seems to be the core message of Basen here.

    A related issue that this post makes me think about: Our PR agency has created a not-for-profit (not a nonprofit) organization called the Antifundamentalism Society (http://fundamentalis.ms) . It is our commitment to CSR. Although an educational organization like ours is not what one commonly thinks of as CSR, we happen to believe that it serves CSR in the broad sense of “advancing a public good”.

    The AF Society was founded for three reasons.

    1. We want to advance a social good that is in line with our firm’s brand (“gnosis” = knowledge, truth, freedom)
    2. We want to use this organization to generate publicity for our firm
    3. The organization, though it will be an L3C business entity, is planned to attract a (small) revenue stream

    So, we felt that creating this organization “kills 3 important birds with one stone.”

    Now, going back to the post’s concept of “astroturf organizations”, I wonder now if such an organization as the AF Society poses any ethical concerns by being owned and operated by our PR agency? I don’t think it does; and, in fact, my plan down the road is to appoint an officer who is not a member of our PR firm’s staff, to be the executive director of the organization. Though the AF Society is not a for-profit venture, it will produce revenue, both for other nonprofits and for our firm. I can’t see how this organization will be an “astroturf” organisation, but I am thinking, in light of this piece, that it may be good to discuss with others.

    Eric Bryant
    Director
    Gnosis Arts Media Group
    http://gnosisarts.com

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