Spot the Difference: Public Relations and Journalism
by Finn Bowen
Tue 4th Sep 2012
Are the corporations soothing a volatile public by sedating true journalism?
The continually closing gap between Public Relations and Journalism is fast reducing, with studies showing up to 98 per-cent of news articles containing PR content (Taylor & Francis Group 2010). In light of the possible convergence of these once completely separate professions, can we ‘trust the truth’ the media portray?
JOURNALISM & PUBLIC RELATIONS: CONVERGING PROFESSIONS?
Widely perceived as two opposing professions, leading editor of Information Week,Richard Wood, asserts “… the idea that journalists would call a PR person for stories is simply weird…strong stories virtually never come from PR people.” (2001) Clinging to their “ideologically-based notion of independence and objectivity” (Macnamara 2001: 1), journalists often insist no relationship between themselves and PR practitioners exists. However Public Relations and Journalism may have more in common than is popularly accredited.Whilst the exact definitions are occasionally blurred with the cynical conspiracist models of modern media (more on that later), both professions communicate alternate angles of reality to the wider public. The question at hand presently is, ‘exactly what are the similarities and differences of these two professions?’ Public Relations could be considered as the professional maintenance of an organisation’s favourable image (Falconi 2008). However this faculty can often ‘leak into’ and corrupt true journalism, as can be found in the case of The Australian’s coverage of News Corporation’s infamous ‘phone hacking scandal’ (The Australian 5 May 2012). As such ensuing News Corp journalism reporting on the phonehacking scandal was rife with PR soothers, apologies and ‘stunts’. One such wasthe somewhat exaggerated “We Are Sorry” cover page which all News Corp newspapers bore for a week. So what boundaries exist between journalism and public relations, and what is their reciprocal relationship?
THE SIMILARITIES: GOOD PUBLIC RELATOR VS. BAD JOURNALIST
First and foremost it must be statedthat the intended end users of both Public Relations communications and Journalism articles, is the wider public. This is the first of two major similarities. This factor can result in the two disciplines vying for the samepublic readership and attention, leading to rivalry and unjust means of winning attention. This can consequently result in a particularly brutal scene whereby opposing angles are presented by journalists and PR practitioners, leaving the wider public divided in their opinions and confused as to the true state of affairs. This can be seen when investigative journalists uncover wrongdoing by a company, resulting in a fierce PR comeback attempting to reaffirm the wider public of the company’s innocence or oblivion to the wrongdoing. For example at the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002, journalists placed the then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair in hot water, accusing him of wrongdoing. This resulted in a fierce PR comeback in the form of a 29-page explanation by an exasperated Blair (White 2002).
Equally, by the two professions vying for similar public readership and attention, it may result in the cooperation and coercion of industry professionals by the sharing and conveyance of similar information. This has been revealed in a recent two week study by the ‘Taylor & Francis Group’ on journalism research. Lucinda Strahan, lecturer in Media and Communication at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University, writes that the investigation followed arts journalism in Melbourne newspapers The Age and The Herald-Sun, finding an astounding 97 per-cent of newspaper articles in The Age having PR activity, and 98 per-cent of The Herald-Sun also bearing high levels of PR influence (Strahan 2011) (Taylor & Francis Group 2010). Similarly an earlier study conducted by Clara Zawawi (1994: 67 –71), former General Manager at Professional Public Relations (LinkedIn Corp. 2011), found that on any one day in 1993, articles from The Australian, Gold Coast Bulletin and the Sydney Morning Herald consisted ofbetween 53 per-cent – 65 per-cent PR distributed material. These figures represent anastonishing rise in PR activity within newspapers in excess of 80 per-cent over less than 20 years (if taken as a median indication). When journalism consists of such high percentages of PR material, it must be questioned whether we as the wider public are discovering hard hitting facts, or being fed corporate misinformation. Consequently the rise of ‘sharing’ information between PR practitioners and journalists has seen a decline in the journalistic abilities, qualities and capabilities as an informant to the wider public. As Michelle Grattan (1998: 32) puts it, “The rise of spin has had a negative impact on journalism, distorting news processes and encouraging more passive forms of journalism.”
The second of the two major similarities, is the underlying and essential requirement both professions must fulfil: their moral and ethical obligations to the wider public. Whilst the job of a Public Relations professional may require subversive and borderline deceitful techniques to ensure their portrayal of reality is readily consumed, they must still conform to rules and regulations. The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance’s ‘Code of Ethics’ states the primary and principal ethicalprinciple, as honesty. Journalists are required to “Report and interprethonestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts.” (Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance 2012) Likewise the Public Relations Institute of Australia’s webpage reveals in the “Individual Code of Ethics”, that their first rule is the same, stating: “Members shall dealfairly and honestly with their employers, clients and prospective clients, with their fellow workers including superiors and subordinates, with public officials, the communication media, the general public, and with fellow members of PRIA.” (Public Relations Institute ofAustralia 2010) Whilst this appears to support and encourage an honest and fair PR practitioner, is it not of concern that their foremost concern with honesty is the obligation to their employer? Shouldn’t their foremost concern be the obligatory honesty PR practitioners have to the wider public? Perhaps this is the fundamental difference between a good PR practitioner and a good journalist.
THE DIFFERENCE: GOOD PUBLIC RELATOR VS. GOOD JOURNALIST
Whilst mounting evidence suggests strong similarities between journalism and PR, there are also great differences between the two professions. This can be summarised by the difference between the two differing faculty practitioners. Perhaps the biggest difference between a successful Public Relations practitioner, and a successful journalist, is their desired outcome.
It is often argued that the profession of Public Relations is about ‘spinning the facts’ in order to produce anappealing image of the company they represent. Two rather cynical conspiracist representationsof modern media appear to perfectly summarise one particular public opinion of both Public Relations andJournalism. “Similarly journalists offer general protestations of distain: ‘Theart of public relations as it is practiced at its highest and most cynicaldegree is the art of confusion and distraction. It is professional hypocrisy’” (Tiffen 1989: 73). A likewise cynical conspiracist model of Journalism can be defined as “…the function of experts, and the mainstream media, to normalize the unthinkable for the general public.”(Herman 1995: 97) Whilst these may be two extreme views, they both offer an insight into two isolated public opinionsof the two professions. As David Demersexplains in his History & Future ofMass Media: An Integrated Perspective, “a public relator should elaborate the opinions of her/his client/employer … With the result that those opinions convince and succeed in engaging stakeholders in an effective relationship.”(2007) Good journalists however aim to present the whole argument in an even and just manner, free from bias or personal prejudice, being honest and thus upholding the integrity of their industry. A good journalist will “…search, disclose, record, question, entertain, suggest and remember. They inform citizens and animate democracy.” (Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance 2012) However their honesty and‘frankness’ comes at a cost, as shall be revealed.
PR practitioners attempt to remain on the ‘good side’ of the wider public; attempting to justify unpopular decisions or by denying allegations which place their company in an unfavourable light.This is primarily done by means of denial, diminishing and repairing (Millar & Heath 2004: 100). Once the proverbial buck is passed, the company will return to a healthy and favourable relationship with the consumer and hence the PR practitioner’s mission is accomplished. Journalists however, or at least good journalists, may be far less expectant of such an appreciativeaudience as they go about the course of their business. Poor journalism could be defined as the simple and unexplored conveyance of facts; namely the journalist acting as a ‘middle man’ between the raw (or in some cases secondary) information sources and the wider public. Good journalists however, as accredited to John Pilger by The Guardian newspaper on the rear cover of his book Distant Voices, reveals: “The truth in his hand is a weapon, to be picked up and brandished and used in the struggle against evil and injustice.” (1994: rear cover appraisal) Intrepid journalists present the whole truth, despite what the ‘official line’ is, and regardless of the desired reality the wider public misguidedly believe. This brutal show of corporate defiance can be found at the spearhead of many revolutionary ideas and movements. One such example is the unprecedented use of social media by citizen journalists in the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ (Medley 2012). Sparked by the self-immolation of Tunisian man Mohamed Bouazizi, the use of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as a means of instantly broadcasting scheduled riot locations and rallying support for their cause, provided an accessible and logical platform from which united protestors voiced their opinions. So it rests upon brave journalists, to present the reality of events for the wider public, and proceed through the ensuing waves of political critics that to this day revoke his views (Gellhorn1994: ix).
SUMMING UP: A DIFFERENCE OF AGENDAS?
In short, Public Relations practitioners pledge their allegiance to their company, whilst journalists pledge their allegiance to the wider public; both professions attempting to maintain integrity through honesty. Sound like a farce? Both professions must vie for the same audience attention, through either competition or cooperation– namely PR practitioners providing neatly packaged press releases to time-restrained journalists. Both must conform to an ethical code of conductand pledge allegiance no matter what, to telling the truth. However, whilst it may be argued PR practitioners ‘spin facts’ in order to shed favourable light upon their company through the effective selection and omission of facts and details, this is always in the sole interest of staying ‘onside’ with the wider public and avoiding controversy or negative attention. Imposingly, good journalists may seek to expose the controversy of companies in the interest of “informing citizens and animating democracy” (Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance 2012). They attempt to reveal the whole, unbiased and equal truth to the wider public, free from personal or corporate prejudice and opinion. This will not always land journalists in the public’s ‘good books’, however if ever the truth is revealed, society will realise the errors in their judgement, and shamefully regret their ignorance to the facts, and arrogance to the truth. In time they shall realise the innate, ideological, purposeful and essential role good journalists hold within a fair, just and equal democratic society.
§ Clara Zawawi, LinkedIn, Accessed 22Aug 2012 < http://www.linkedin.com/pub/clara-zawawi/5/45b/53a >
§ Demers, David (2007), History & Future of Mass Media: An IntegratedPerspective, New Jersey: Hampton Press.
§ Falconi, Toni M. (2008), ‘Objectivityin public relations and journalism: essential for the credibility of bothprofessions, and for different reasons’, PRConversations.com,Accessed 19 Aug 2012. < http://www.prconversations.com/index.php/2008/01/objectivity-in-public-relations-and-journalism-essential-for-the-credibility-of-both-professions-and-for-different-reasons/ >
§ Franklin, Bob & Matt Carlson(eds.) (2010), ‘Journalists, Sources, & Credibility: New Perspectives’, Routledge Research in Journalism,Oxford: Taylor & Francis Group.
§ Gellhorn, Martha (1994), Distant Voices [Prelude only], London: Vintage Books.
§ Grattan, Michelle (1998), ‘ThePolitics of Spin’, Australian Studies inJournalism, 7, pp. 32.
§ Herman, Edward (1995), ‘Pt. 2; Ch. 13,The Banality of Evil’, Triumph of theMarket. Cambridge MA: South End Press. pp. 97.
§ Macnamara, Jim R. (2001), ‘The Impactof PR on the Media’, Asia Pacific: CARMA International. pp. 2. < http://www.pria.com.au/sitebuilder/resources/knowledge/files/208/primpactmedia.pdf >
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§ Millar, Dan & Robert Heath(2004), Responding to Crisis: ARhetorical Approach to Crisis Communication. New Jersey: LawrenceErlbaum Associates.
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§ Pilger, John (1994), Distant Voices, London: Vintage Books.
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§ Tiffen, Rodney (1989), ‘OvertManoeuvres: Public Relations Politics’, News& Power. Sydney: Allen & Unwin. pp. 73-94.
§ White,Michael (2002), ‘Blair on funeral: we did nothing wrong’, The Guardian, 15 June 2002. < http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2002/jun/15/uk.media3 >
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§ ‘News critics guilty of jaundicedjournalism’, The Australian, 5 May2012.