Life was easier once for journalists. Depending on what ‘easy’ means to you, you may or may not agree with me. For journalism once meant a stream to which belonged professionals who reported and covered events every day for news outlets and mass media.
Then came communications or the profession to which the Public Relations or simply PR individual belongs. The PR individual came to be known as one who would use whatever means, including the mass media, to promote a specific message, an image or an idea, to defend a cause, or just carry influence.
There is an idea that all this only means advertising but in the complex market we exist in, where competition is key and getting closer to the customer is the thumb rule, PR has emerged more than just that; to add on to the world of journalism, actually.
Writer Derrick Jensen believes advertising to be totally different from public relations. He says that public relations is much more insidious (than advertising). “Because it is disguised as information, we often do not realise we are being influenced by public relations.”
Right? Not really, if you realise that the relationship between communication professionals and today’s journalists is more symbiotic than clashing.
For, according to Anne Gregory, Director, Centre for Public Relations Studies, Leeds Metropolitan University, journalists and public relations people have always had an “ambivalent relationship”. What she is trying to say is that there although there is mutual dependence, there is also mutual caution and some trust.
Consider this: A Korean technology company has been in the news recently. It has a huge market base, is a leading brand in India, and all of a sudden you had news that in some way undermined its popularity.
According to the PR personnel handling the account, the article written by the journalist of a daily is quite balanced but the technology company is adamant it is not and wants to approach the journalist's seniors. This is despite the fact that advice from the PR personnel to the contrary.
This exemplifies there is more required than just some trust between journalists and public relations people.
While it is amply clear that the PR person cannot expect even the most friendly reporter to behave as a spokesman for him and that the reporter should not exhibit undue suspicion against the press-contact-person trying to convey a message or point view, regardless how unpopular or politically incorrect that message is.
It must be understood that communication experts are facilitators of media coverage and therefore, necessary for the media work-process. Most media doesn’t want to deceive the spokesperson and allows him to speak his mind, and make intelligent remarks. On his part, the one in charge of relations with the media encourages the spokesperson to talk, by ‘arming’ him with the shield of ground-rules for attribution of remarks. At the same time, it must not be denied that PR persons often function as gatekeepers – which it should not – by not allowing hostile media easy access to the individuals or institutions they represent.
But then what is wrong with helping a spokesperson with a healthy and legitimate instinct of survival? And can an intelligent and enterprising reporter be discouraged from pursuing a legitimate story just because he was denied access by a so-called gatekeeper?” asks Gregory.
It falls upon the communicator’s able shoulders to try and make sense of all sorts of institutional or corporate information and documentation for the reporter who is in a hurry and does not have the time. A professional communicator is one who puts forth whatever information or data he gets from the company he represents in a manner that will not only be understood easily by the media but also has easy pick-up.
Of course, the communications person is self-serving in the process but then that is part of his KRAs. Even the spokesperson the reporter talks to will but obviously speak only of the company, person or the institution he represents.
As the PR industry grows, there has been a growing understanding too of the fact that an industry professional have to be credible, trustworthy and truthful. This has been further fuelled by the growth of social media where organisations NEED to participate to get closer to their stakeholders.
We are now in an age when companies and individuals have become media outlets with the capacity to create and syndicate content. At the same time, the masses obsession with speed and “breaking news” has been growing at an exponential rate.
This has created some sort of synthesis where PR goes beyond myths and clichés, and provides the journalist with news that will ultimately serve the purpose of the entity the PR personnel represents.
It is uncanny that despite journalists and PR professionals having always worked together, there’s been much conflict between the two. Often, journalists purposely ignore the never-ending stream of press releases and PR professionals – lesser now – have to deal with arrogant and unappreciative journalists. But the fact remains, both know that they not only need each other but also have to rely on each other in a world which has a high craving for news that has gone as real as it gets.
As Yasmin Md Basir, PR Associate @ Corporate Media Services says, “Today’s real-time journalism means there is room for everybody and anybody to share his take on breaking news stories simply by blogging, tweeting or commenting on live chats. You have to be dead on the money though because delay equals failure. For PR pros, this means turning the PR relationship around and providing information that journalists look for and at the precise moment.”
Perhaps it’s time for PR and journalist to have a two-way conversation on the rules of engagement. Perhaps both must realise that given the chicken-and-egg situation they share, none can be ignored. Both have responsibility to serve, yet keep respectful distance from one another so that they can function independently, honestly and with integrity.
There is good PR and bad journalism and there is bad PR and good journalism. Numbing the effect of what’s not desired can only happen if there is reliability in both the professions.