Journalism or PR: Where Would You Look for Truth?
Charting the future of public relations
Holmes Report

Journalism or PR: Where Would You Look for Truth?

Historically, the relationship between journalists and public relations people has been shaped by the perception of the former that their business involves the pursuit of truth, coupled with the conviction that the latter engaged primarily in manipulating or concealing the same commodity.

Paul Holmes

Historically, the relationship between journalists and public relations people has been shaped by the perception of the former that their business involves the pursuit of truth, coupled with the conviction that the latter engaged primarily in manipulating or concealing the same commodity in pursuit of a narrow and self-serving agenda.

It’s time to reevaluate those assumptions. In the modern media environment, a case can be made that standards of honesty and truthfulness are now considerably higher in the public relations profession than they are in the world of journalism. Certainly, public relations practitioners are more accountable for the accuracy of their pronouncements than their counterparts in the fourth estate.

When Tony Snow was a commentator for Fox News, he could make assertions about the actions and motives of the Bush administration—and its opponents—with a minimum of supporting evidence, confident that his status as a member of the fourth estate would shield him from any adverse consequences. But as the President’s official spokesperson, Snow now finds every word he utters subject to scrutiny. Any inaccuracy or perceived insensitivity is likely to have serious consequences for his personal credibility and that of his employer.

The big difference is that as an official spokesperson, Snow is answerable to a far broader range of stakeholders than he was as a commentator. Fox News, like a growing number of media outlets, is only concerned about the opinions of a narrow segment of the public, its core demographic. And it is secure in the knowledge that its viewers are likely to agree with its prejudices and accept—even welcome—its distorted view of the world.

But the Bush White House, like it or not, is accountable to the American people—all of them. Any overt dishonesty will damage its credibility with at least a segment of that population.

That’s why politicians increasingly use sympathetic reporters and commentators—Matt Drudge, Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Ann Coulter and Fox News—as their proxies. The media are able to say all the things politicians would like to say (witness Coulter’s recent comment that widows of 9-11 victims were “enjoying their husbands’ deaths”) while facing none of the real-world consequences of saying them. (Indeed, Coulter’s remarks generated publicity for her book and a slew of new interview offers.)

This is true not only in the political realm, but in the business world too. The use of statistics and other data by corporate public relations people is regarded with suspicion. A PR person citing even the most rigorous statistical or scientific evidence that appears to benefit his client had better be ready to answer a series of tough questions. A reporter drawing on dubious numbers from the other side is unlikely to face any significant scrutiny.

In the corporate sphere, meanwhile, any public relations person who uses the words “miracle cure” to describe a new drug will be pilloried in the press and quite possibly hauled before regulators to answer for his hyperbole. But a reporter or an editor can insert those words into coverage without incurring any consequence more serious than the muted mutterings of a few pedantic medical professionals.

This rather dramatic change in the nature of the relationship between public relations professionals and reporters is explored in Where the Truth Lies: Trust and Morality in PR and Journalism, edited by public relations professor Julia Hobsbawn with contributions from luminaries from both sides of the divide, and published in the U.K. earlier this year.

The book is particularly timely because, as Hobsbawm points out, “The practices of PR and journalism have both historically remained hidden from scrutiny, but no longer. Journalism and PR have become ‘the story.’ Judith Miller and Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Andrew Gilligan of the BBC, Alastair Campbell of the British government are the most obvious examples of media figures in the spotlight. Although still a relative rarity, the scale of attention they command has become a symbol of the potency of the role of each practice.”

Most of the individual essays are interesting in their own right, but taken overall they provide a fascinating snapshot of a relationship in transition, as the balance of power between journalists and public relations professionals shifts and assumptions about the integrity of both parties are challenged.

Simon Walker, director of communications for Reuters and formerly communications secretary at Buckingham Palace, hits the nail on the head when he writers that “the weakening of professionalism among journalists and strengthening of competence within corporate communications is combining with financial regulation and the absence of any meaningful press regulatory regime to create a paradox: corporate PR is actually becoming more honest than retail journalism.”

I’m not quite sure why Walker thinks that’s a paradox. There are pragmatic reasons for both PR professionals and journalists to tell the truth, but the consequences of failing to do so are likely to be far worse for an errant PR practitioner and for his company. Dishonesty in corporate communications almost always accomplishes the precise opposite of its presumed intent: far from protecting the image of the organization, in this age of transparency, its inevitable discovery causes irreparable damage to reputation.

“Companies have changed,” says Walker. “They have come to appreciate that straightforward communication is one of their most valuable assets. Big companies to whom public profile matters (and that’s most of them) have brought the PR function to the top table. And clever people are going into corporate communications departments.”

As a result, “corporate PR has to be more accurate than journalism. The rules are old ones. Behave honorably. Tell the truth. Be realistic. Don’t do deals with bandits. Relationships matter so act for the long term. Of course you can deceive any reporter once. But he or she will never believe you again.”

Anne Gregory, who is director of the Centre for Public Relations Studies at Leeds Metropolitan University, echoes that point: “Public relations seeks to build and maintain relationships of trust that are mutually beneficial,” she says. “Trust implies reliability, integrity, and good faith; organizations that want to be trusted are best served by practitioners who themselves are trustworthy.

“Organizations continue to exist because the public gives them a ‘license to operate.’ Part of the job of public relations practitioners is to stress the requirement of public approval to their organizational masters and this should act as a regulator of organizational conduct. Indeed, public relations should not only help to regulate bad conduct, it should actively promote good conduct in the form of ethical practice and social responsibility.”

One critical difference between reporters and public relations people, Gregory says, is that journalists are focused on the immediate. For them, “a story or a feature normally has fleeting impact. It is here today and forgotten in a few days.” Public relations people, on the other hand, need to operate with a long-term mindset. “It takes years of painstaking and thoughtful work to build relationships of trust and a good reputation between an organization and its stakeholders.”

I don’t have any data to support this, but my guess is that journalists burn public relations people for short-term gain—misleading their sources about the premise or tone of a story, for example—far more frequently than public relations people deliberately mislead journalists in order to dodge a negative story.

Smart public relations people have always understood that honesty really is the best policy. “Public relations may not be so theatrically heroic [as journalism],” says Hobsbawm, “but it can be every bit as ‘good’ and morally valid as journalism. The responsibility to inform citizens and consumers of risk and reward, of truth and opportunity, of choice and democratic process, is part of the day-to-day work of PR.” Yet negative stereotypes about PR and its practitioners persist.

Colin Byrne, chief executive of the U.K. operations of Weber Shandwick, acknowledges the popular image of public relations when he writes, tongue firmly in cheek, of receiving his new membership card from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations: “It tells me that I am bound to be professional, act ethically, respect confidentiality and be transparent.

“It omits to mention that I am supposed to lie, distort, cover up, deceive, smarm and generally try to hoodwink the public and those brave crusaders for truth—journalists. Yet that remains the popular image of a profession that employs over 30,000 people—and image perpetuated by many journalists.”

There are legitimate reasons for this negative perception. One is that bad—which is to say dishonest—public relations attracts so much more attention than good public relations. Another is that many of the organizations that employ professional public relations people are big and powerful and therefore regarded with suspicion even when they communicate honestly.

“For the PR practitioner who doesn’t want to be seen as an evil, cynical, money-driven mercenary the risks are considerable but the temptations understandable,” says Mark Borkowski, founder of U.K.-based Borkowski PR and author of a column on the subject in The Guardian. “Whatever ethical position you take, it’s extremely difficult, when times are hard and your loyal employees are banging their begging bowls on your door, to turn income down from drug companies, arms manufacturers, GM crop researchers, cosmetic firms with a taste for guinea pig-testing, gas-guzzling 4x4 makers, political parties, hell, even tobacco manufacturers….

“They all need good PR desperately, and no one is prepared to pay more than them for a slice of your time and a turn on the media roundabout.”

I happen to think that Borkowski is falling into a fallacy here. Ethical behavior in public relations is unrelated, it seems to me, to the nature of one’s client. It is entirely possible to conduct oneself ethically while working for a tobacco company (never mind a drug company or a biotech firm, both of which can legitimately claim that their work makes the world a far better place). The ethical dimension of PR work is determined by the way it is conducted—factually, with intellectual honesty, and with respect for dialogue and transparency—not by the identity of the institution on whose behalf it is being conducted.

It is just as possible to conduct unethical public relations for a “white hat” client such as Greenpeace or Oxfam as it is to provide ethical PR advice to a company in a “black hat” industry.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish to deny that bad practice is more commonplace than legitimate practitioners would like.

Kate Nicholas, associate publisher of PR Week in the U.K., writes in her chapter of a survey conducted by the magazine in the U.S., which found that 25 percent of PR people admitted to having lied on the job. That’s indefensible.

But it’s unlikely that any of them ever told a lie more reprehensible than that of the Canadian reporter who set up an interview with Janine di Giovanni, a writer for The Times and Vanity Fair who was among the first to report on the 2002 massacre of Palestinians at a refugee camp in Jenin by Israeli soldiers. After telling her that he was working with Canadian Broadcasting Company, he turned up at her house—while she was pregnant—accompanied by an Israeli soldier posing as a cameraman, and proceeded to “ambush” her in an attempt to provide damning footage for a pro-Israeli documentary he was shooting.

The behavior of the reporter—whose relationship with CBC was entirely fictional—was later compounded by other media who piled on gleefully. “One nasty Israeli columnist commented how I lounged on pillows like a princess,” di Giovanni recalls in her chapter of Where the Truth Lies. “You try having a high-risk pregnancy, having to stay in bed for months on end, gaining 50 pounds, and not leaning back on pillows, I wanted to scream at her.”

One of the problems facing both journalists and public relations practitioners is that truth is often in the eye of the beholder. The title of the book, which can be read two ways, hints at the malleable qualities of truth. “Everyone has a truth,” Hobsbawm writes in her introduction, “and today’s blogger culture allows everyone to tell it. You just can’t be sure whose truth is being told at any given time.” She’s right, although the agenda of a corporate or political public relations person is usually more apparent than that of a journalist or media outlet.

Facts are, of course, sacred. Neither journalists nor public relations people make a habit of factual inaccuracy. But any attempt to make sense of those facts, to fit them into a narrative thread, involves an attempt to interpret them, to put them into context, to discern their meaning. It is in the effort to draw truth from facts that creates distortion and what is now widely called “spin.”

But spin is  by no means the excusive province of public relations people.

John Lloyd, contributing editor to the Financial Times, is among the contributors to Where the Truth Lies, but he wrote the following in an essay for the FT: “All institutions have spun themselves. Some with colossal energy and great success - the Catholic Church would be one such. Governments have done so with less success, in part because they have faced greater competition than the Catholic Church… and also because they claim they create earthly as against eternal joy, a claim easier to disprove.

“Most individuals spin themselves—representing themselves as attractive, intelligent, diligent and trustworthy, especially at critical times such as job interviews or seduction opportunities. Spinning would seem to be a necessary attribute of intelligent humanity. And since humans are intelligent, they don’t believe institutions, political parties and other individuals…. It is a definition of maturity to know where trust should end and scepticism begin, and how both can co-exist even, perhaps especially, with people you respect, or love.”

Lloyd then goes on to point out that in the western tradition at least, spin is not necessarily the enemy of truth. It can, through an adversarial system of advocacy, serve as a way of arriving at the truth.

“The way in which most of the Anglo-Saxon states get at the truth under the law is by advocacy of particular and often opposing cases. Two views are put, with passion and eloquence, by barristers. Public relations people are secular barristers. Journalists are the secular juries.”

The obstacle to the truth in the public realm is not that public relations people have relinquished or corrupted their role as “secular barristers”; it is that far too many reporters no longer bring the neutrality or impartiality that is expected of secular jurors to their role.

“I have been amused at the irony of PRs being cast as spinmeisters by journalists who themselves have to increasingly fit their stories into the world view or editorial slant of their editor, proprietor or marketing department,” says Colin Byrne, chief executive of the U.K. operations of Weber Shandwick, who was formerly chief press officer for the Labour Party—which perhaps makes it no surprise that he would agree with Labour “spin doctor” Alistair Campbell’s assertion that many journalists “spun” more than he did.

“As Labour’s chief press officer in the early 1990s I would routinely wake up to find my party’s policies and my party leader distorted and downright lied about in the print media. Yet is was the likes of me, Peter Mandelson, Alistair Campbell and our colleagues who were derided—usually by the very same journalists—as ‘spin doctors.’”

Whether in the U.K. or the U.S., there is no shortage of evidence to support the Campbell-Byrne hypothesis.

“Look at the front page of the Daily Mail or the Independent most days of the week,” Byrne urges. “Are they reporting truth? Often the answer has to be no. They are projecting events through the prism of their editorial standpoint. A standpoint that broadly reflects that if their readership market segment…. The Daily Mail now operates a policy of trying to frighten its readers to death—on health scares, crime, immigration, etc.—rather than pretend to be dedicated to telling the truth.”

Walker makes the same point: “Today’s newspaper journalism no longer beckons to idealistic graduates as the champion of truth and integrity. A news agency, like Reuters, does still champion its historic values. But the combination of celebrity reporting, set-ups, made-up quotes and pitiless paparazzi has prompted a general distaste for the media.”

At the same time: “There are fewer reporters, less time and more space… Economic pressures mean the demands on British journalists are far greater than they used to be. There is no money to pay for the degree of specialization seen in serious U.S. newspaper, still less legions of fact-checkers.”

As a result of those financial pressures the dynamics of the relationship between journalists and PR people are changing.

Colin Byrne quotes his Weber Shandwick colleague David Yelland—former editor of both The Sun and the New York Post—as believing that “PR is now as important to the media as the media are to PR.” Says Byrne: “The old-school view… [was] that the media were pivotal, independent, the ethical in pursuit of the truth and all that was fit to print. PRs were seen as slightly glamorous but lacking the power and independence of journalists and generally being in the business of flogging snake-oil for the highest possible fee.”

Today, he says, when he interviews journalists looking to move into PR, those views have changed. “The media is at war with itself over declining newspaper circulation and most journalists’ contact books are full of key and senior PR contacts, from politics and business…. PR is seen to be more about power and influence that glamour and flim-flam.

“Yes PR continues to have poor PR. But its relationship with the media is based on something bigger than grudging respect or occasional sniping. It is rooted in a common interest—the increasing importance of communications to the mission of organizations, movements and leaders. And that is a trend that can only continue.”

Kim Fletcher, former Telegraph and Independent editor and now a business consultant, makes much the same point, less harshly. “Journalists retain the right to patronize PRs but rub along with them pretty well. Whatever they may say, the journalists are far from the masters of the relationship. The balance of power swings from journalist to PR according to the market value of the product. A PR who wants a nice write-up for the caravan company he represents may have to work hard to find journalists to go. The PR seeking publicity for a new destination in the Indian Ocean can probably place the piece where she wants.”

Clearly, journalists who “spin” a story may not be motivated by financial, political or ideological bias. Sometimes the bias for a “good” story is enough to cause a distortion of reality.

Mark Borkowski observes that “many journalists today are in the ‘game’ for personal advancement beyond journalism. By which I mean that from the very start of their careers, they’re not thinking about stories and front pages and headlines and scoops and becoming editor; they’re thinking way ahead of all that ‘stepping stone’ stuff to lucrative media consultancy, share options in start-ups, TV punditry.

“They’re all thinking about Getting Famous and actually being news themselves like Andrew Neil or Andrew Marr or the Lawson clan. And in pursuit of that the first casualty will be their sense of balance.”

Perhaps most telling in this regard is a contribution from Leonard Doyle, foreign editor of The Independent, who writes about the reaction of “colleagues” from other newspapers to a scandal involving his paper’s correspondent in Zimbabwe, who was taken into custody by Robert Mugabwe’s police force and was later accused on exaggerating the harshness of his detention.

Says Doyle, “Trying to limit the harm to the journalist’s reputation and douse the flames licking around our own credibility was an exhausting though ultimately satisfying task. But the experience of dealing with colleagues on other newspapers—little interested in the facts that might get in the way of a juicy story—was profoundly disappointing.”

To which a seasoned public relations professional might well respond: “Welcome to our world.”

Doyle’s experience “was to provide me with a vivid insight into some of the uglier realities of the pack instinct of the British press. No matter that most of the reporters who called me were hundreds of miles away from Harare, nothing it seemed would dissuade them from rushing into a print with a story damaging to the Independent regardless of the risk to the reporter.”

In other words, reporters would rather take the word of a ruthless dictator with absolute contempt from the freedom of the press than of a colleague they all knew and in many cases respected. It is inconceivable that they saw Mugabe as more credible; the only explanation that makes sense is that the story was better if they accepted the Zimbabwean government’s version of events.

Perhaps it is time for the media to take the kind of advice good public relations people provide to clients in other industries. 

“The truth (or what passes for it) is filtered through the media funnel of journalism and then on to the public,” says Hobsbawm. “Information is poured into the funnel largely by public relations, journalism’s dominant source. Yet the extent of this interdependent relationship is concealed from the public. Journalism’s dependence on public relations is resented among journalists and sometimes PR uses its increasing leverage to further this antipathy.”

Hobsbawm offers a solution—greater transparency in the news gathering process—that will strike many in the media as extreme, perhaps unworkable. She takes content labeling—an approach many in the media have applauded when applied to food products, among others—as her starting point.

“I’m not suggesting that the physical architecture of a page or a program is tampered with. Neither am I suggesting that consumers must read through screeds of footnotes like a ‘running crawl’ across the bottom of a TV news station…. I am arguing that they should be able to opt into significantly greater amounts of historic and contextual information.” They can do so via the Internet, she says, and while she does not call for reporters to reveal their sources, she would like to see “something along the lines of an academic model of citations, so that the audience for a story can really track and trace it origins, should they wish to, and understand much more fully the basis on which that story has reached them.”

Even more radical is her suggestion that “it would be remarkable for newsrooms to provide the kind of open access that allowed ordinary people to watch the extraordinary process of deciding the news agenda… and offer on the web a continuous Big Brother-style broadcast of the newsgathering teams making their choice of stories.”

She would also like to see a “register of journalistic interests, so that we can know if a journalist writes about or interviews a friend, a former lover, or someone with whom they went to university,” or, presumably, a company in which they hold shares or from which they have received speaking of other fees.

There are those within the media who understand the need for greater transparency. John Lloyd, contributing editor to the Financial Times, points out that “PR people almost always have to declare themselves: they have to say, or it is anyway clear, that they are working for client X, and can thus be presumed to be putting the best possible spin on the client’s behalf.”

Lloyd would particularly like to see transparency around one of the ethical dilemmas for which journalists and PR people must share responsibility: the provision of “freebies” for travel journalists and others. (Actually, he would prefer to see an end to the practice, but would settle for an arrangement under which consumers were told of the value of products and services provided to the journalist in the course of his or her reporting.

The last aspect of this book worth commenting on is the fact that I don’t believe it could have been written in the U.S. I don’t think it would have been possible to prevail on so many top-flight editors or journalists to think deeply about the relationship between media and their sources, or to acknowledge the existence of such a relationship, beyond the standard grouching about PR people not bothering to read the reporters they target.

Nor would it be easy to find public relations people courageous enough to go on the record with comments about the reporters upon whom many still believe they are dependent.

But even if most of the contributors to Where the Truth Lies are from the U.K., the book explores an issue of global significance, to reporters, to public relations people and to citizens who sense that our culture is spinning out of control and want to able to decipher that spin and discern the “truth” that lies behind it.

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