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In defence of public relations

Roy Greenslade fired a shot at the public relations industry yesterday, claiming that its growth combined with the decline of journalism was an affront to democracy.

Greenslade is Professor of Journalism at City of London University and a media commentator for The Guardian.

In a blog post on The Guardian web site prompted by an article by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson in The Financial Times on the growth of the PR industry, Greenslade cites a statistic from Nick Davies’ excellent book Flat Earth News and data from the Holmes Report.

We reached a place in 2008 according to Davies were there are more PR practitioners than journalists in the UK. The Holmes Report records global revenues for the industry at more than $10 billion.

The simple fact is that media organisations employing journalists now are a lot leaner than they were in the past.

The Internet has broken the shackles of deadline, page count and schedule. It has made the distribution cost of content almost zero and provided search and social mechanisms to aide discovery.

Anyone with an Internet connection can be a critical voice and provide a contrary filter to corporate content. Journalists have been supplemented by publics noisy voicing their comment and opinion. That’s the story of Brand Anarchy.

For its part the public relations industry, supplemented by increasing numbers of former journalists, myself included, is helping organisations engage with publics in two-way dialogue.

That dialogue is seldom easy. You can see the evidence of organisations that get it wrong day in and day out on corporate web sites, blogs, Facebook, Google+ and Twitter.

The public relations industry for its own part is under scrutiny like never before called out by the self same critical publics. It’s response, a slow shift towards professional standards, remains a work in progress.

This is a story of changing business models fuelled by the Internet. It’s strengthening democracy not weakening it.

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Stephen Waddington

Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum and Visiting Professor in Practice, Newcastle University.

2 Comments

  1. It’s also surely a sign that we are ripe for change / a huge industry and mindset shift that elder statesman of journalism Greenslade demonstrates quite clearly here. He refers to PR in terms of media relations, and in fairly old fashioned, agenda-driving, press release terms. I see our industry as a far wider and more exciting field: content and opinion and influence and education and audience and choice. And that’s not a threat to democracy. That’s progress.

  2. There is a generation growing up with social media who hardly remember a time without it. They now know not to believe everything they read online – whether it’s a TripAdvisor Review, a newspaper article or a political pamphlet. They have developed their own critical reasoning as to what is real and what isn’t.

    When newspapers opened themselves up to comment boxes and the general public also had their own voice they couldn’t believe the scrutiny they were being put under. At times they couldn’t believe how disliked they were.

    Now we’re all under scrutiny. There are so many eyes that transparency is everywhere. If you lie in a press release then you will get found out and most likely you, your client and you client’s brand will be humiliated. So why would you?

    As someone who has been both journalists and PR I can tell you that there are/were plenty of papers still happy to use PR filler with few questions asked – regardless of news values or even objectivity, truth etc. I’ve even been in the situation of ringing round PRs begging for the stuff. If newspapers are more worried about filling than entertaining or informing that shouldn’t be the PR’s problem.

    What we’ve learnt with Leveson and with the increased transparency of the media is that we all have agendas. We all want to push our point of view – be it political or commercial. Newspapers have agendas too.

    But I think we’re now better equipped than ever to understand and balance those agendas. No one entirely believes what they read anywhere any more. We should all be prepared to be critical.

    Frankly it’s all voices/noise we’ll follow the good ones and ignore the bad ones. The lines between PR and journalism blurred a long time ago – the fact that it’s being brought up now suggests that things are changing for the better.

    A quick look at my Twitter feed and I’m getting my news from an NGO CEO, the country director of a wildlife charity, an FT journalist, a magazine editor, a cafe owner. I’ll pick apart what they’ll share – be it in newspapers or on their own websites. I’ll share the good stuff.

    There’s a lesson there for PRs too. Getting into the paper is not the aim. They aim is to be read. Don’t settle for space online or on paper. Aim to generate interest. If you do that then everyone’s happy.

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