The relationship between journalist and PR officer is one of the most valuable – but often one of the most difficult – to foster and maintain. For a long time there has been a sort of “love/hate relationship” between the two professions, with journalists often calling publicists “flacks” and publicists calling journalists “hacks” – albeit rarely in earshot of one another.
I know that during my time studying Journalism (and International Relations) for my Bachelors degree, lecturers (who were invariably ex or freelance journalists themselves) would often teasingly refer to the public relations industry as “the dark side of Journalism”, a reputation which has in no way benefited from the widely reported actions of those such as Max Clifford (both within PR and within his personal life). I’ll admit that this reputation did initially put me in mind of a certain sci-fi film trilogy from the 70’s and 80’s (the ‘prequels’ do not count), but today I ask, “Are we really so different?”
Honestly, I can see where some journalists with this viewpoint might be coming from. After all, in ‘Propaganda’, Edward Bernays is famously quoted as saying “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. …We are governed, our minds are moulded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”
Thought to be one of, if not THE, founding father of public relations, Bernays’ statement does not paint a particularly good portrait, particularly when trying to refute the bad PR that PR has experienced. Personally though, I think there are two ways of looking at public relations.
The CIPR (also known as the Chartered Institute for Public Relations) defines public relations as being a discipline focused on managing reputation with the intention of “earning understanding and support, and influencing opinion and behaviour”. Its focus is clear in its attempt to re-imagine PR as a respected, ethical and rigorous profession – something which has long been an aim of the organisation.
The PRCA (Public Relations Consultants Association) on the other hand, whilst equally stating that “Public relations is all about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you”, states that the practice is predominantly “used to gain trust and understanding between an organisation and its various stakeholders.” This (to me at least) is more suggestive of the PRCA’s focus on the industry as practice rather than as a profession.
But, regardless of whether you consider PR as a profession or a practice, is there really so much difference between the industry and journalism? Especially now that so many hacks and flaks are sitting on the fence and dipping in and out of both Journalism and PR throughout their careers?
Sheldon Rampton, co-author of “Toxic Sludge Is Good For You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry” and research director of PR Watch, stated in 2007 that “In a lot of ways, P.R. people do the legwork for journalists — feeding them stories and sources, and doing research.” With the growth of social media and the subsequent changing role of journalists as ‘gatekeepers’, brands are now more able than ever to create their own content which can then be pitched to increasing numbers of niche and mainstream publications in real-time. This ties in to Bernays’ view that “modern business must have its finger continuously on the public pulse. It must understand the changes in the public mind and be prepared to interpret itself fairly and eloquently to changing opinion” – a view which, to me, sums up the precise point of what PR (when engaging with journalists) allows its clients (and the journalists themselves) to do.
Instead of joining “the dark side”, to me, public relations and journalism are two sides of the same coin. Perhaps it is my optimism showing, but the biggest difference I can so far see on the surface of each industry (so far at least), appears to be the presence or lack thereof of bias within a press release and/or article. I know there’s FAR more to both professions than this but I genuinely see the two as mirrors rather than warring factions.
Therefore, perhaps rather than the love/hate/name-calling relationship PR executives and journalists have at present, they could instead recognise that their relationship is one which is symbiotic in nature, and that both professions have qualities to offer and, in cases of bad practice, negative aspects that need to be managed.
For me, Bernays said this best when he stated: “It is asked whether, in fact, the leader makes propaganda, or whether propaganda makes the leader. There is a widespread impression that a good press agent can puff up a nobody into a great man. The answer is the same as that made to the old query as to whether the newspaper makes public opinion or whether public opinion makes the newspaper. There has to be fertile ground for the leader and the idea to fall on. But the leader also has to have some vital seed to sow.”
Bluntly put, “A mutual need has to exist before either [profession] can become positively effective. Propaganda [or public relations] is of no use to the politician[/brand/organisation] unless he[/they] has[ve] something to say which the public, consciously or unconsciously, wants to hear.”
Make love, not war, guys. We’ve all got something to offer.