A few weeks ago, BBC Economics Editor Robert Peston sparked a fierce (and ongoing) debate by warning of the power of the PR industry in setting and controlling the news agenda. His views, given in the annual Charles Wheeler lecture, were that the combination of a lack of resources at newspapers and the central position of PRs as gatekeepers was leading to a world where companies and their representatives dictated the agenda. An environment full of spurious stories that at the very least obfuscated the truth, and that the worst were downright lies or spin.
He concluded, “I have never been in any doubt that PRs are the enemy. Other journalists have taken up the battle cry, with Nick Cohen describing press officers as “the nearest thing to prostitutes you can find in public life.” In response, Public Relations Consultants Association boss, Francis Ingham, called the comments "sanctimonious" and a "venomous, ill-judged diatribe."
As in any relationship, PRs and journalists have always taken pot shots at each other. The balance has shifted over the last twenty years – there are now more PRs than journalists, generally they earn more, and traditional media has been hit hard by the rise of the internet.
I think the argument risks getting out of hand, with both sides missing the point. Firstly, the range of the PR industry is broad, as is journalism. What Robert Peston has seen in his career working for national and broadcast media is not the same as the majority of trade or local journalists who have a much less antagonistic relationship with the PRs that pitch them stories. The same goes for political spin – I work in PR, but I’m not Alastair Campbell or Malcolm Tucker. Clearly there is abuse of position and power by spin doctors as they deliberately work to spike stories or brief against opponents. Does that mean that every PR does the same (or would like to?). Speaking personally the answer is no, as I’m not sure my blood pressure could stand it – or that the vocabulary improvement would go down well at the school gates.
Secondly, there is a big difference between in-house PRs and agencies. Press officers have a single client, their employer, who pays their salary. In this environment it is potentially easy to lose your sense of perspective, and to believe that what your organisation is doing is right, and that everyone else is out to get you. And this isn’t just competitive businesses or warring politicians, press officers at charities and NGOs often believe passionately in the cause they are espousing and want everyone else to feel the same. In contrast, PR agencies are middlemen, and rely on their ideas and relationships with the press to gain new clients. So burning bridges by bullying journalists into taking down a story or requesting copy approval may work once, but it will destroy a relationship for the future. As a PR person I must admit I have asked for stories to be changed online – but only for the simple reason they were factually inaccurate. My personal favourite is politely requesting a journalist get the sex right of the client he’d interviewed.
Thirdly, commentators need to look at the wider context. The rise of ‘content’ as an all encompassing area lumps together what was previously seen as advertorial, proper journalism, wire reports and pictures of cute cats lifted off social media close to deadline. Traditional print media have faced falling circulations and increased competition as they’ve moved online, ironically at the same time as having more space to fill. This means publications now need more content than ever before, with fewer, less experienced staff on hand to deliver it. PR and marketing-led content has filled this vacuum, whether from survey-based press releases, soft features or owned content submitted by organisations. This doesn’t have to be bad – take the Red Bull Stratos skydive or footage from any NASA mission, but it has to be in addition to real, investigative reporting rather than instead of it.
The balance between journalists and PRs has changed. However that doesn’t mean that journalists don’t have power – or that the relationship should get too friendly. Whatever happens day to day, journalists and PR people do have differing jobs to do – and neither should forget that. Not all PR people are power-crazed Alastair Campbells – nor are all journalists Andy Coulsons...
Photo: British journalist Robert Peston, mid-interview in London. (Credit: Wikipedia)