Hacks Vs Flaks: Are we really so different?

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.”

"PR, I AM your father"

“PR, I AM your father”

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.

A new section is born: “Notes for novices”

A big part of my learning process has been the realisation that pretty much every single person I’ve met in my position or in their first creative job role is scared. They’re scared about money, about their current situations, and most of all (I believe) they’re terrified of how to get themselves noticed. Today’s creative industry is so competitive, its understandably a daunting challenge that anyone worth their salt is expected to overcome.

Working for a social enterprise: PAPER Arts, which focused on helping unemployed young people build skillsets for roles in (or to start their own businesses in) the creative sector, was a true eye-opener as to the sheer number of young people who don’t know where to start.

I wouldn’t claim to be the font of all knowledge (for one thing I don’t have the ego) but I’ve thought that, as well as my own analyses and opinions on various aspects of advertising and PR, it might be beneficial to include a section of tips or notes for other students/young people trying to break into the business based on my own gleanings and take-homes on the off-chance they learn something new that might be of use.

So here it it.

A new *star* – by which I mean ‘section’ – is born.

“Notes for Novices” (Name in progress)

Embedded Journalists: “Propaganda Merchants”, or providers of a much-needed human perspective?

Since its use during the 2003 media coverage of the Iraq War, ‘Embedded Journalism’ has become a form now easily recognisable to the general public. In contrast to being an independent or affiliated “war correspondent” (whose role is to deliberately go to the most conflict-ridden areas and provide written or photographic accounts of the events there), an “embedded” journalists instead attach themselves to, and thus travel with, a unit of the armed forces, recording and reporting on the activity of the soldiers in question as well as their own experiences of living amongst them.

This position could be argued as being quite a controversial practice due to widespread criticism in some circles by those who claim that embedded journalists’ main purpose is to act as a part of a generalised propaganda campaign, or that it is only being utilised in an effort to control the portrayal of the events of said conflict. Journalist, Gay Talese, for example; summarised this opinion best, stating “Those correspondents who drive around in tanks and armoured personnel carriers, who are spoon-fed what the military gives them and become mascots for the military”. I intend to explore how far his statement might be true, in addition to analysing the benefits of ‘embedding’ with the intent of establishing the true purpose and effectiveness of journalists acting in this role.

The new position for some journalists to become embedded in a military unit, can be explained in a 2003 report by the US Department of Defence which states that; “Commanders and Public Affairs Officers must work together to balance the need for media access and the need for operational security” due to their belief that, “the media coverage of any future operation will, to some extent, shape public perception of the national security environment.”

It can be said that it was this ‘need’ by governments, amongst other factors, which meant that conflict media representatives, such as embedded journalists for example, now face reporting on a broad range of situations – from conventional warfare to acts of extremism – which are arguably as confusing as they are complex. The very nature of their work means that they’re required to be at the forefront of unfolding events in the region, whether that means their covering of the unveiling of a new government programme, or the eruption of fresh hostilities between two opposing factions. It is this level of responsibility that makes solving, or at the very least understanding, the controversy over the use of embedded journalists in the military so important.

The first main benefit which can be taken from embedded journalists’ work is their ability to secure first-hand access of the events as they unfold. This means that the speed in which events can be reported back to a news agency or organisation is vastly improved, allowing for media outlets in journalists’ home countries to be able to regularly access numerous reports and information on a large number of events from a wide variety of sources. Journalist, Susan Stephenson, quoted in Berman (2003), concisely highlighted this benefit when she said that, it is “the sense of immediacy and humanity that made our stories very real today”. Her opinion on the matter is also supported in Getler (2003) where she states that “many news organisations now have a cadre of journalists who have some real knowledge and understanding of the military”, which of course is essential to prevent misunderstanding and miscommunication with the public that might otherwise discredit their role and thus damage their believability.

The second benefit: ‘Believability’, is vitally important in media as it forms the basis for the public’s opinion of any journalist or News organisation, therefore directly affecting shaping its readership in addition to its standing amongst its competitors. Appearing to be believable and engaging is something that embedded journalists aim to achieve in their articles and broadcasts which seek to counteract the growing levels of public distrust for official reports delivered by the military which are being more and more commonly dismissed as propaganda aimed at supporting a government’s ‘agenda’.

The number of journalists present in an area, in addition to the range of personnel within the units with whom they’re placed, forms a third ‘benefit’ of using embedded reporters because it allows for an increased number of ‘believable’ and ‘human’ angles due to embedded journalists’ ability to access multiple sources and hear different perspectives directly from the source. Alongside this ease of access to a variety of personal experiences, embedded journalists also are able to act as metaphorical ‘watchdogs’, holding the military to account through observing military activity and ensuring that legal and ethical standards are being upheld during combat.

Living amongst military personnel as a member of said unit allows almost free and open access to the journalist to cover and broadcast on a wide variety of stories from the horrifying coverage of an explosion, to the mundane coverage of the living conditions, or day-to-day lives of those they live amongst.

As said by General Buford Blout the Third, in Synovitz (2003); “The embedding process is an attempt to get reporters to tell the ‘army story’ more actively, by allowing them to share the experience and rank of soldiers in the field”, whereas Lieutenant Commander Jeff Davis recognises the value of “having independent journalists say in an unbiased way what the truth is”…… “It is something people will benefit from by having a true understanding of what is going on” (McClintock, 2003). However it can be said that the role of a journalist who is embedded in a military unit is most easily summarised by journalist, Dan Suwyn, in Bartholomew (2003a) where he simply states that “all we can do [as journalists] is to try and make a local connection with a war halfway across the world.”

Overall it could be said that, all of these benefits allow for a more improved and streamlined relationship between the government, its military, and the media representatives tasked with reporting on conflicts. The inevitable regular, close contact between military and the media could be said to potentially lead to the development of mutual trust between the two, ideally leading to the increased connections that facilitate the flow of information between the armed forces, government and members of the public and subsequently increasing military transparency – a goal touted by the majority of critics as being a big step in “the right direction.”

However, some argue that there’s not been a step at all.

Prior to joining a military unit, journalists are required to sign a contract that aims to restrict when and what they are able to report on. In addition to this, the unit’s commander is able to declare a “blackout” for security reasons, whereby the journalist is unable to report at all via satellite connection as this may be traced by the ‘enemy’ so as to secure the unit’s location. Although written and signed with good intentions, critics argue that by signing such a contract, journalists are constricted into reporting primarily from a single, narrow viewpoint; namely that of the military.

Journalist, Jack Lawrence, appears to have summarised the difficulty of being in a position of knowledge yet unable to share it when he says, “The challenge of knowing so much and being able to say only in general terms what you do know in a live or nearly live broadcast is extraordinarily difficult. I am holding in my head all the information whilst at the same time as I am centring myself and ad-libbing to a host who is asking questions that I could so easily answer and give away information that would break the ground rules” (Jensen, 2003).

Even past US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld stated that “What we are seeing is not the war in Iraq; what we’re seeing are slices of the war in Iraq” (op cit), cautioning that being so close to the action does not necessarily mean the portrayal is complete.

“We’re seeing that particular perspective that that reporter, or that commentator or that television camera, happens to be able to see at that moment, and it is not what’s taking place. What you see is taking place, to be sure, but it’s one slice, and it is the totality of that which is what this war is about” (Ibid).

The second key issue raised in embedding journalists is the media’s dependency on advertisers “looking to appeal to an audience determined by the stories and journalists chosen by the owners and investors” (Tuosto, 2008). It is arguably this issue which holds sway over all others, namely: the potential for sensationalism, the potential for media or personal bias, and the risk for the ‘human’ perspective outweighing the much-needed critical analysis of events.

I have come to the conclusion that, in a general sense at least, the benefits of embedding journalists far outweigh the issues they create. It is only when embedding becomes the primary method of reporting on conflict that it creates a skewed image of events due to the journalists’ confinement to a small segment of the battlefield with only restricted movements outside it. This is because, although it allows them to gain a deep understanding of the lives of military personnel and the locals that they are surrounded by, it restricts them into seeing enemy combatants from the purely a one-sided perspective, rarely giving the public the opportunities to see things from an opposing viewpoint outside of ‘official’ reports. It is this fact, I believe, which leads to the potential for media bias and sensationalism. As explained by The Independent’s Opinion Correspondent, Ian Burrell; “War reporting is easy to do, but difficult to do well. Wars rouse such passions that editors and senior producers in home offices seldom retain healthy journalistic scepticism” (Burrell, 2010).

It is with this in mind that has shaped my view that, although embedding journalists in military units is an important step in providing the public with a deeper understanding of the military whilst also allowing for effective reporting of localised events; it is only when they, i.e. embedded journalists, are balanced alongside a variety of other media representatives whose roles fill in the informational and perspective ‘gaps’, that an accurate and fair representation of conflicts will be possible, and scepticism regarding whether embedded journalists are purely propaganda merchants will be silenced. Until then, it will be continued to be argued that “whilst viewers might be seeing more of the war than ever before, they may actually be learning less, albeit in a more spectacular way” (Hoon, 2003a).

References:

Bartholomew, R., (2003a) “Embeds from smaller papers take different approach”. Available at: http://editorandpublisher.com/edtiorpublisher/headlines/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=186026a

Berman, A., (2003) “So far, editors pleased with embedded reporters”. Available at: http://www.editorandpublisher.p…/cpt?action=cpt&expire=&url1ID=5764107&fb=Y&partnerID=6

Burrell, I., (2010) “Embedded Journalism: a distorted view of war”. The Independent. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/opinion/embedded-journalism-a-distorted-view-of-war-2141072.html

Getler, M., (2003) “Close up and vivid reporting”. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com

Hoon, G., (2003a) “No lense is wide enough to show the big picture”. Available at: http://www.Times_online.co.uk

Jensen, E., (2003) “Veteren reporters go to war”. Available at: http://www.latimes.com

McClintock, P., (2003) “Embedded journalists draw fire”. Available at: http://www.xtramsn.co.nz/entertainment/0,,3911-2224949,00.html

Synovitz, R., (2003) “Iraq: Pentagon starts embedding reporters with troops in an effort to tell ‘army story’”. Available at: http://www.rferl.org/nca/features/2003/03/11032003184830.asp.

Tuosto, K., (2008) “The ‘Grunt Truth’ of Embedded Journalism: The new media/military relationship”.  Stanford Journal of International Relations, Vol 10, No. 1, Fall/Winter 2008. Available at: http://www.stanford.edu/group/sjir/pdf/journalism_real_final_v2.pdf

US Department of Defence. (2003) “Public affairs guidance on embedding media during possible future operations”. Available at: http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Feb2003/d20030228pag.pdf