In defence of public relations. Again.

Ian Burrell writing in The Independent this week has called out the growth of the public relations industry as bad for journalism.

Burrell says that the balance of power in the communication triangle between organisations, the media and publics has shifted over the last 20 years.

“Any big story now invariably develops into a credibility contest between the reporter and the communications team of the organisation under fire, with social media becoming a battlefield of damage limitation,” he says.

This is the same argument advanced by City of London University journalism professor Roy Greenslade a month earlier in a blog post on The Guardian.

According the Burrell’s research the latest headcount of journalists in the UK stands at 40,000 whereas the public relations industry numbers 60,000.

I return to the response I wrote to Greenslade’s blog post.

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.

This is forcing organisations to be more open and transparent, not less so as Burrell suggests.

The public relations industry for its own part is under scrutiny like never before called out by the self-same critical publics.

The industry took a step towards addressing this last week with news that the CIPR is to publish a register of members. It’s a move that Burrell says is not before time.

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

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Stephen Waddington

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


  1. Thanks for the heads up on this article Stephen. I have left a comment on the original, and append it here fyi.

    “… a sense of frustration and exclusion felt in tabloid newsrooms was surely a major factor in driving some reporters to obtain their information by the devious and illegal means highlighted in the hacking scandal.”

    You have to be kidding me. News is everywhere now (rather than eked out as Mr. Burrell implies) and criminal activity is never justified. I agree that the business model for news is transformed, and it’s analysis and synthesis that’s worth the money nowadays.

    Saying that, I think this particular analysis has its flaws.

    Perhaps one reason the ranks of PR practitioners has swelled is precisely because social media has acted like a big oil gun taking the previous friction out of the system. Far from the article’s conclusion that greater control is being exerted, social media has flipped the old 20th Century axiom – perception is reality. Social media enables what many refer to as radical transparency. Reality is now perception. And this is good for all organisations and their many stakeholders.

    I’m worried about the business model for good (ie, legal) investigative journalism, at the same as I’m hopeful that a new breed of PR professional is emerging under the auspices of its Chartered body. A profession that seeks to influence opinion and behaviour, and to be influenced similarly, in order to build mutual understanding and goodwill. And for the avoidance of doubt, this intent is far removed from the PR model known as “spin”.

    • Hi Philip,

      Thanks for dropping by. For a refreshing view on the future of investigative journalism you need to look up Heather Brooke (@newsbrooke on Twitter) and her books The Silent State and The Revolution Will Be Digitised. She’s a new breed of investigative data journalist that worked on the original MPs’ expenses investigation long before the Daily Telegraph got involved and several of the Wikileaks investigations.

      All the best,

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