Objectivity in public relations and journalism: essential for the credibility of both professions, and for different reasons

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If we take journalism -as David Demers writes in his very recent and most interesting History and Future of Mass Media (Hampton Press)-

‘journalists should keep their personal opinions and the opinions of their newspapers out of their news stories; All sides to a story should be covered and reported; All sides to a story should be given an equal amount of coverage’

But, if we consider public relations, we could say that:

‘a public relator should elaborate the opinions of her/his client/employer; Present them to attract the attention of carefully and increasingly personalized stakeholders; To the point that these may perceive that, yes, all sides to the story have been covered and given an equal amount of relevance(?? see later); With the result that those opinions con-vince and succeed in engaging stakeholders in an effective relationship

I agree these descriptions are purely normative as both professional practices are in reality quite different. Yet, the clear distinction between the two professions is evident, as the very concept of objectivity varies.

Although both are ready to concede that ‘pure’ objectivity is impossible to achieve, the attribution of information to identified and accessible sources and the quoting of different sides to a controversy allegedly help to produce ‘objective’ and ‘unbiased’ accounts.

Yet, you might wonder about the point of attributing ‘objectivity’ to the domain of public relations, a profession which, by its very nature, is consubstantially subjective, biased and one sided.

The point is technical: if you wish to be credible… not only should you, at the very inception of your argument, explicit your subjectivity, one sideness and bias; but also ‘objectively’ quote various sides of the controversy, as well as offer accessible sources that your interlocutor may readily access.
And this, I hope, is self explanatory.

Having said it, while I certainly agree that all sides to the story should be covered,
I would question the issue of equal amount of coverage for both professions as a needed indicator to achieve objectivity.

From a journalist perspective the concept of neutrality is a much more relevant credibility factor than just equal coverage.
A journalist, unless his function is merely bureaucratic, should be actively neutral: i.e. ensuring more coverage to one position rather than the other is not only realistic, but in many cases just.
Conceding its feasibility (for the sake of the argument), ‘pure’ objectivity inevitably reinforces the more socially powerful sides which allegedly pay lip service to mainstream stereotypes.

Even more so, a public relator would simply betray her/his client/employer if the argument gave equal coverage to all sides and would also contradict the explicited subjectivity, thus hampering the overall credibility of the approach.

Summing it up, active neutrality (in both professions) is not only a ‘nice to have’ kpi which implies specific professional competencies such as ‘objectively’ listening, writing and arguing, but also paves the way for the concept of ‘relative objectivity’ which for both trades turns into a fundamental, and insufficiently studied, argued and valued competitive advantage for the individual professional.

Does this reasoning makes sense to you? Do you think it is worth further thought and investigation? And if so, please integrate, criticise and comment.

21 COMMENTS

  1. Obejectivity to certain amount is needed in both professions. Thats very true. and i do agree that journalists should be neutral with their articles and cover all sides of the story fairly rather than taking side. (But how many do that? dont their opinions come in?)
    As with PR shouldnt it be done or written in such a way that only the positives of the client or oganization are thrust forward? ya objectivity to a certain extend is needed in that too but in the the end its the positives that matter right?

  2. if I were on top of the tower and obliged to push over only the positives or, in alternative, the various sides of whatever argument or controversy, I would push over the former.
    This -mind you- not for ‘moral’ or ‘do-gooder’reasons, but for the sake of professional effectiveness and credibility.
    If my role was principally to ‘thrust forward’ only the positives, as you suggest, I would be (at least in many, if not all, instances) doing a disservice to my client/organization.
    My interlocutor (journalist, politician, financial analyst, local community reperesentative, activist..)would be fully justified not only to doubt my arguments but also stimulated to look for alternative critical sources.
    If instead I supply him with an acceptable view of the different sides of the argument, he will be more inclined to believe me and less incentivated to look for alternative sources.
    Clearly this last argument is somewhat ‘dodgy’ … or ambiguos, as it could imply that I would be stimulated in ‘spinning’ the other sides and exagerating the merits of my client/organization.
    But isn’t this always true?
    Aren’t we always, by the very nature of our profession, suspected of ‘thrusting forward’ only the arguments of the side we represent?
    If this is so, then by underscoring a relatively ‘objective’ argument we would be enhancing our own and our organization’s credibility.
    Of course this is a general (if not generic) argument, and one would need to qualify it case by case…bur the principle of always seeking relative objectivity in order to reinforce credibility should be, in my view, always practiced.

  3. That’s a very interesting argument. And while I agree (and would hope) that journalists are objective in their reporting, I don’t think that necessarily applies to PR. Instead of objectivity, I would substitute transparency: As ethical practitioners we must clearly identify and articulate who we’re speaking for; whose stories we are trying to tell.

    I’ve tried to build relationships with media and other influencers by honestly, credibly and creatively presenting my client’s story. Then, it’s up to them to conduct further research and reach their own conclusions.

  4. I agree with Martin on this. Transparency is what we should aim for rather than try to twist oursleves into thinking that we may be or try to be objective. Of course we are not objective when we explain a certain position. What we say is our position on a given matter and this implies that we have listened to the other arguments and found that we are arguing a certain position. Explaining that we have considered another point of view is transparent and makes us much more credible. It is also what I believe should take place.

  5. It is logical to support the argument for transparency as an ethical position for the PR practitioner representing any organisation (ie making them inherently subjective rather than objective).

    We can take this further however, in respect of needing to understand alternative perspectives – not simply to consider how we can counter these (as persuasive theory might imply is an effective, though not necessarily moral approach).

    Other viewpoints may question the behaviour of those we represent and hence we should consider whether the organisation needs to adapt in response to justified criticisms. We should also recognise the rights of others to hold counter-viewpoints. There are ethical questions if PR is used to undermine those who might disagree with our arguments.

    I think we do need to consider the impact of presenting one-sided perspectives. Of course, others (including media)can or should do their own research – but this may not always be possible (especially if organisations control access to such information).

    This leads to lack of trust in organisations (and PR which is equated with spinning the message).

    So there can be a difference between presenting accurate information on the basis of transparency of our role as communicators – and using our skills to present this information in a way that makes our organisations look good at all times.

    Are we using our magic words to illuminate or obfuscate?

  6. From my perspective as a journalist, I don’t think many of my colleagues expect “transparency” when dealing with PR practitioners. We expect that they are arguing the position they have been paid to argue. Jean Valin writes that “what we say is our position on a given matter and this implies that we have listened to the other arguments and found that we are arguing a certain position”. I’m not sure how many journalists would accept that implication. Few believe that PR people have reached their conclusions based on an independent evaluation of both sides of the argument. Rightly or wrongly, journalists believe that, above all else, this is what separates what they do from what public relations people do.

    And it seems as if some PR practitioners agree. Last spring, 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. He wrote that “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, Webber 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.”

    Perhaps that’s a more accurate description of what PR actually does. Either way, it would be safe to say that it conforms more closely to the perception most journalists have of what PR is about.

  7. Several trains of thought have been provoked by this post. Where Heather comments: “So there can be a difference between presenting accurate information on the basis of transparency of our role as communicators – and using our skills to present this information in a way that makes our organisations look good at all times.” My first reaction was that I don’t want my organisation to ‘look good’ at all times, I want them to *be* good as often as is humanly possible (often, rather than always, as I have yet to meet anyone who is good all the time, even if they constantly strive for perfection). If what I say about my organisation doesn’t truly reflect what they do then we are all on a hiding to nothing.

    Ira says: “Few believe that PR people have reached their conclusions based on an independent evaluation of both sides of the argument. Rightly or wrongly, journalists believe that, above all else, this is what separates what they do from what public relations people do”. This leads me to suggest, not for the first time, but very respectfully, that perhaps journalists need to look a little more closely at what public relations is about these days, rather than retain such a jaded old-school view? Challenge their own beliefs perhaps? Take a more ‘objective’ view of an industry that has been more stereotyped than most?

    I would love to applaud all the objective journalists in the world who still report a factually, unopinionated 360 degree view of a story – and I do. But sadly, for many years now, such journalists have been in ever-decreasing supply. Objectivity in journalism is, more often than not, determined not by the individual journalist, but by the owners, publishers and in some cases, governments. Stories are deliberately slanted and, where once a story wouldn’t go to print without all sides being afforded the opportunity to comment, more often than not we see ‘tit-for-tat’ reporting, with one version broadcast one day and the opposing view the next. My training as a journalist started when I was 17 (and of course entire oceans have passed under the bridge since then) and, as the old cliché runs, some of my best friends are journalists (really, they are!) – yet we will still all sit around a bottle of wine and bemoan the fact that so-and-so on such a paper has been told to put this slant on a story and him-over-there at the radio station has put his foot down about running a rough story on such-a-body because they are a good advertiser. And in case you are reading this in disbelief, muttering curses at me through gritted teeth, run a content analysis on your five favourite mainstream media outlets tonight and tell me how many truly ‘objective’ pieces you find.

    Journalism has moved a long way from event-based reporting – the ‘news’ as and when it happens. No matter the experience of the journalist, even if it is their first outing, if they are reporting ‘from scene’ they are expected to have ‘an opinion’ – and aren’t all opinions ultimately subjective?

    The journalist’s role has changed – it has had to in order to cope with the evolution of media channels. News aggregation sites and contributions from citizen journalists (who are often far from objective) change the role yet again. Opinions, comment and subjective views drive today’s story and extend its life, rather than the value of the story or event itself. Mainstream media deliberately courts controversy in order to up circulation or drive web traffic – count how many use bookmarks and solicit subjective comment on opinion in order to up the ‘authority’ on their social media rankings. Ultimately, this takes us to a place where the journalist will relay (not report) a story on the basis of the opinion he or she has formed, rather than the ‘facts’ which have already (perhaps) been covered and editorialised in 24/7 media outlets.

    From a public relations perspective, I have to know all sides of the story – otherwise I am not doing my job. I need to know what communities are involved, what their opinion might be and what impact this tale might have on them, because ultimately, I am not building a relationship with the media (unless of course it is a community in its own right) I am building a relationship with the communities I interact with – and mainstream media relations is a part of this process.

    In presenting a story to mainstream media, I have to present it objectively, factually and ensure it meets the ‘news’ requirements of the journalist filtering the information in order to meet the needs of their community. I also have to be aware of the ways in which the journalist might filter the story and the potential angles that could be taken. If I don’t, the whole exercise is a waste of everyone’s time and resources. As far as transparency is concerned, if I am briefing a journalist and I know there are other sources they should talk to, then I’ll signpost them accordingly – after all, many journalists are time poor, a huge number are very young and inexperienced.
    If, on the other hand, the thought of such transparency makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, that means something in the organisation is not good, so you’ll find me inside the organisation advocating and/or making the necessary changes so that things become good or at least, ‘the long road to improvement’ begins. That’s one of the many elements of public relations work that journalists very rarely see or encounter – nor do they willingly look, as it is much easier to stay cosied up inside an old-world view. Journalism and public relations are two very different and distinct professions. Yes, objectivity is essential for both, and, as Toni’s headline suggests, for very different reasons. Historically, we have crossed paths more often than other professions but that too is set for change as mainstream media influence wanes. From a public relations perspective, organisational credibility, reputation and ‘licence to operate’ will be maintained through transparency, good behaviour, appropriate values and best practice along with a willingness to change and respond when things go wrong (which they will, as human activity invariably turns to custard at some point). As for journalistic objectivity, it’s worth noting that Toni’s original quote from David Demers was full of what ‘should be’, rather than what ‘is’. And it is also worth noting that journalists work for ‘organisations’ too – so the same rules regarding credibility and licence to operate apply to news organisations as much as any other!

    Here in the real world, whether we are journalists or public relations practitioners, all we can do is set a good standard and genuinely try our best. Both professions (and professionals) will sometimes get it wrong, but mostly get it right, so maybe a balanced view is the best objective we can hope for.

  8. I point readers to a timely (and open-access) article in Ethical Corporation’s By Invitation column, Communications – Production-line PR, which details the concept of “Intelligent PR,” and touches on many of the issues raised by Toni and all commenters. (Speaking of which, welcome to first-time commenter Martin Waxman and welcome back to PRC’s great champion, Ira Basen. Thanks for all of the recos you’ve been giving to PRC at your numerous speaking gigs, plus to your various PR and journalism students.)

    The guest author, Malcolm Gooderham, focuses on the following areas that he believes require attention in order to achieve “sustainable communications” with the media and other publics. It’s rather uncanny how many of them touch on things discussed here.

    Authenticity The integrity of corporate communication depends upon corporate social responsibility being recognised as authentic for the company, and integrated with its business model. Communications must reflect the reality of how a company behaves and the values, motives and a sense of direction and ambition.

    Brand awareness Corporate responsibility needs to address core weaknesses of the corporate reputation – and leverage core strengths – to increase brand popularity. A company must understand the expectations that people have of it before it can begin to build reputation.

    Cogency Initiatives need to be interrogated to ensure they are strategically coherent and challenging, both of the company and of its peers. No company faces the same expectations and conditions. So the analysis and recommendations cannot be duplicated.

    Coalition Engagement should be targeted and designed to build long-term relationships to support the brand and a leadership position. It is important to win the trust and respect of “critical friends” so they consult with the business about their concerns.

    Delivery For stakeholders to recognise successes, business needs to recognise weaknesses. And the language that a company uses for media relations needs to be measured. The tone can be positive and optimistic, but it must also be modest. And no communication should take place until a robust narrative and evidence is in place.

    Editorial It is important to demonstrate alignment between corporate and editorial agendas. Support from senior media figures can build awareness for responsible business practices across media organisations and stimulate positive coverage.

    (And this article reminds me to get cracking on sending my renewal invoice for Ethical Corporation up to the accounting department.)

  9. Addendum: I was remiss in not welcoming Kelvy, too, whom I believe is our very first *commenter* from Kuwait. (Although we get fairly regular/decent traffic from that region, perhaps because of Kelvy having us on her “Regular Reads” blogroll. Thanks for that, Kelvy.)

  10. In these slumbering days for my country (Italy) I can think of only a handful of polticians who I really admire.
    One of them is President Giorgio Napolitano who many years ago explained to me (when we were both jointly and very active in trying to reform the ex communist party, he from the inside and I from the outside..but it’s another story..) his concept of ‘benaltrismo’ (otherthingism), a term coined to explain when in a debate other participants move on to another issue because, maybe unconsciuosly, the prefer to avoid confrontation with the one which began the conversation.
    This seems to me to have happened during this discussion.

    Mind you..not that otherthingisms mentioned are not interesting..to the contrary..but this is the best way to divert a discussion from its original intent (talking of relative objectivity…).

    Of course transparency is a fundamental feature of professional public relations, no matter what (with all due respect) Ira Basin says.
    Brad Rawlins, from Brigham Young has recently published a highly interesting paper on this, and even before that I have been for years raising my coworkers and students the argument that, specifically in public relations, transparency basically implies three (and sometimes four) components:
    °you say who you are
    °you say who you represent
    °you explicit your specific objective
    and (but only when soft or hard regulations do not impede you…such as in financial communication for example)
    °you explicit how you intend to reach your specific objective.
    This is transparency, essential, but has nothing to do with what I was trying to express in my original post.

    I am not surprised that Ira voice what journalists expect from us (my recent post on the italian research on what we think of journalists and they think of us fully confirms this).
    So what?
    I am in full and total agreement with Catherine Arrow who suggests that journalists are less and less our principal interlocutors and that even when we discuss with journalists we should always keep in mind that they are only intermediaries (however essential) with our real publics.

    The concept of relative objectivity, I admit (but this is why I raised it), is difficult for a public relator to come to grips with, but (if I may…)I strongly advocate that more thought should be given to this, not because we want our employer/clients to be good rather than only appear good (Cathy again), but principally for the reason Ira indicates. If journalists do not expect you to be relatively objective, if they find out you are, they will surprised and you will be more effective.
    And if this is true for journalists, who are by far the most cynical and misbelieving of professionals (worse than doctors or lawyers, let alone public relators..), then it is even more true for other and more relevant interlocutors such as financial analysts, non profit organizations, suppliers, distributors, clients, employees and what have you.
    Just as simple as that..

  11. I actually agree with many of the points that Catherine and Toni make here. I have no illusions about journalistic “objectivity”, and I understand that journalism today faces many serious challenges as a result of more than a decade of cutbacks and demands to “do more with less”. Under-resourced newsrooms are full of young, inexperienced, over-worked journalists for whom PR people are an indispensable resource. This has helped shift the balance of power in favour of PR. And with great power comes great responsibility. While some PR people might take advantage of a reporters’ lack of knowledge and time to give their client a positive “spin”, I have no doubt that most PR practitioners continue to operate honourably and ethically when dealing with the press. Public relations is an essential part of journalism. It always has been, and always will be.

    But to get back to Toni’s original point, and to avoid being accused of “otherthingism”, I remain uncomfortable with the use of the word “objectivity”, even in a relative sense, when describing the work that PR people do. And at a time when the word is falling out of favour in journalistic circles (to be replaced with words like “fairness” and “balance”), I’m not sure why PR people would want to grab this falling torch. Journalists don’t expect PR people to be objective, but as Toni says, “so what”? Journalists expect the information they get from PR practitioners to be accurate and honest, but they also understand that the PR person is a paid advocate, and has a vested interest in how the story ultimately gets written. Can this really be squared with “objectivity”?

    No self-respecting journalist needs to be told by a PR person that they should be making more phone calls, and though suggestions are always welcome, they shouldn’t be relying on PR people to tell them who they should be calling. The failure to vigorously pursue different sides of a story (which happens far too often) is a failure of journalism that neither can nor should be corrected by public relations. As one senior PR executive in Toronto told me in an interview, “you don’t have to just buy what I say. You can talk to whomever you want. My job is to make the story from my perspective as clear as possible, and that’s really it. It’s not my job to say the story begins and ends with what I’ve told you. It’s not my fault if you don’t make another phone call”. Most journalists understand and accept this as the basis of their relationship with PR. The attempt by public relations to improve its relationship with journalists or other “interlocutors” by appearing more “objective” is probably unnecessary, and likely doomed to failure.

  12. touché, Ira.
    I accept your point of view..
    if we agree that the public relator, before constructing and going out with an argument (whatever the issue) looks at all sides of the story; makes sure that unintended consequences on other publics from that story are not a suprise; indicates identity, interests, objectives and, where possible, process to interlocutors and -as a competitive advantage in order to develop trust and credibility- also indicates other sides of the argument to stimulate attention. I accept that we do not necessarily need to call this ‘relative objectivity’, but simply better professionalism.

  13. Surely the level to which “relative objectivity” applies to the PR professional depends on whether you are looking at the whole professional or just their external role. Part of our job is to convey the other sides of the story to our colleagues to fight against the natural tendency of any community towards GroupThink. I often comment that in some ways I was better at my job when I’d just arrived and had to ask all the stupid questions. Now I have been “institutionalized” and must consciously fight to keep that other viewpoint in mind. Perhaps we should call it “relatively skeptical” since it is about playing the Devil’s Advocate in many cases.

  14. I agree on the point that PR professionals should aim at transparency in our daily work and in our contact with stakeholders, clients, prospect clients and public in general. In the same way, journalists should aim at transparency in their news articles or broadcasts.
    It’s true that, in the end, we respond to our employer and that none of us would say something that could damage his reputation or the reputation of his company or product. But… doesn’t just everybody have to respond to their bosses? Or aren’t journalists sometimes pressed by the editors or chiefs to present a certain side of a story or don’t they sometimes show a biased point of view?

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