How public relations is beating journalism in the race to control the media

“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

-George Orwell.

For anyone working in media, public relations, or journalism related fields, the beef between Journalists and PR is not new. The tension bewteen the two fields has existed as long as journalism has, due to the simple fact that as soon as you have a media that can theoretically print anything it likes about you (barring libel and hate speech), experts who can help you navigate the industry become necessary.

But while journalistic legend George Orwell seemingly had pretty strong views about PR (whether he actually said the above quote is oft-debated- but that’s another blog post), journalists can’t really sustain a career by only publishing things ‘someone’ would rather keep hidden. If they did, they’d probably only put out a few stories a year.

There just aren’t that many Watergates in the world. Sometimes you have to do a fluff story about the community centre down the street. And that’s fine.

The truth is journalism needs PR. In an article defending the role of public relations, writer Julia Hobsbawm cited statistics that as many as 75 percent 50 to 80 percent of news and business stories come from public relations. Whether that’s actually a good thing, I’m less sure, but it does demonstrate journalists’ reliance on PR.

In the 24-hour news cycle, keeping on top of stories can be extremely difficult for journalists who are increasingly expected to do far more with their time, and multi-task across many platforms. Being handed a media release that neatly sets out an entire story for you, including contacts for interviews, can seem like a blessing.

Additionally, having a PR worker in an organisation “on your side” can be an invaluable resource. They will have all the information you need, the numbers of people to talk to, and can even send you high-quality images for a website or print publication.

In the case of stories about not-for profit organisations, community groups, or even activists, a media officer can be a really great tool. I won’t lie, I’ve used plenty of media releases when researching stories. I also run social media and consult on a form of ‘public relations’ for a start-up literary magazine, and never felt any sort of guilt about it. In that role, my job is to simply help the magazine reach readers.

But when you apply the idea of public relations to government, big business, and other powerful organisations the media is supposed to keep an eye on, the whole thing seems a little more sinister. It’s easy to imaging that a media officer might be helping them keep unsavory information quiet, or twist facts so that unethical actions seem fine and dandy when framed just right.

breakdown This graph (stolen from the Public Relations Institute of Australia), shows that corporate clients are a large chunk of their membership.

The largest group is ‘consultancy’, which is shady to me, because we don’t know who those people or organisations are, or what they’re using PR services for.

That said, PR still doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Recent studies have found that people who work in public relations are actually very good ethical thinkers, and rarely give in to “pressure to lie or manipulate.” Another found that journalists’ poor view of PR is actually based on a “narrow understanding” of the profession.

Interestingly, that study also found that when journalists view PR people as both ethical and useful, they “acculturate” them,no longer viewing them as “PR”. Meaning that many journos are hanging on to an unfounded hatred of people in our sister-industry, with a whole lot of “doublethink” going on.

Nevertheless, the beef continues, and nothing sums it up better than this quote by Bryan Appleyard, a well-respected British journalist:

“Hacks still naively pursue something they like to call the truth. Their problem is that it no longer exists. For truth has been destroyed by public relations executives, or ‘scum’ as we like to call them.”

But there is an issue with PR in the modern age, and perhaps it’s one which even Orwell might not have been able to predict.

Public relations professionals currently outnumber journalists, and the number of jobs in PR are only growing while journalism shrinks.

In the United States, there were 5 PR employees to every 1 journalist in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics. That ratio obviously skews very heavily to the public relations side- put all those PR people and journalists in a room and I’m sure the journalists would feel outnumbered.

But that’s nothing compared to Australia, where public relations officials outnumber those in the journalism industry 12 to 1, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

In 2013 study, The ABS predicted that by 2018 there would be 22,500 PR professionals working in the industry, compared to the 20,700 employed at that time, or an increase of over 8 percent. However more recent stats have put the number of PR professionals at 91,000, if advertising and corporate relations are included under the PR banner

Meanwhile, journalism is shrinking by as much as 10% in Australia, and we all know that journalists are being laid off left and right.

And not only do PR pros outnumber journos, they are paid significantly more too, potentially luring away many trained journalists currently entering the field.

While there has always been a lot of overlap between public relations and journalism, with a lot of switching between fields, the danger now is that too many talented people will be lured out of journalism, and the quality of news will suffer.

For example, when over-worked journalists rely on media releases, they get the exact same info as a whole bunch of other media outlets. If they don’t take the time to rework the story and do background research, all their stories end up sounding the same.

Jump to 1 min 23 in this video for a good example of this.

Another issue is that news outlets, struggling to make a profit in a world of free online content, often turn to paid “advertorials” for content. But in Australia, the rules around disclosing paid content are very lax, and often disclaimers are unclear or hard to find. When PR gets dressed up as journalism like this, it’s often not as subtle as creators would like to think. Audiences usually pick up on it, and news sources become very hard to trust as a result. And as we all know, trust is already a huge issue for journalism at the moment.

The thing that separates public relations and journalism, even though much of the day-to-day work they do is often similar, is that a journalist works in the interest of their readers, (and the organisation that employs them), while PR professionals work in the interest of their employer.

While the two industries have a collaborative relationship, creating news that’s in the ‘public interest’ means that maintaining a balance of power is essential. Right now, PR has all the power, and if things continue as they are, that power will only grow.


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