Paul Holmes 15 May 2011 // 11:24AM GMT
In addition to some utterly justified criticism, it is certain that the recent imbroglio over Burson-Marsteller’s work with Facebook will generate more than its share of self-righteous bullshit. It is unlikely, however, that any of its will be more self-righteous, or more replete with the excrement of the male bovine, than this Slate column by Jack Shafer. According to Shafer, “Every reporter approached by PR firms knows that the primary focus of PR firms is to push lies. If PR people were being paid to push the truth, they'd be called reporters. Not to get reductionist on you, but most PR campaigns are ‘smear campaigns’ if the definition of a smear campaign is to spread untruths or half-truths or other deceits in an organized fashion.” In a sane and rational world, it would take only two words to refute Shafer’s—I won’t call it an argument, since it’s essentially just unsupported invective—accusations: Fox News. But I’ll go further. The kind of “truth-telling” practiced by Fox News on a daily basis are comfortably contained within the norms of modern journalism—at least as comfortably as the activities in the Facebook case are contained within the norms of modern public relations. Shafer may believe that the integrity and ethics of communication are determined by the profession of the individual communicating. Those who have a more genuine interest in assessing honesty might prefer to judge communication on the accuracy of its content and on the motivation of the individual communicating. On both scores, I believe PR people are held to—and hold themselves to—higher standards than most reporters. The only difference is that when PR people twist the facts, they are probably motivated 60 percent by commercial considerations, 40 percent by their own personal beliefs or ideology; when reporters twist the facts, they are probably motivated 60 percent by ideology and 40 percent by commerce (such as the desire to sell more copies, attract more viewers). Shafer’s column is a perfect example. Is “the primary focus of PR firms is to push lies” a factual statement, or is it Shafer’s spin?