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.