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What Gutenberg can teach PR people

October 31, 2011

“As news organizations suffer worsening financial pressures and cut back on staff and resources, the PR industry is getting stronger and stronger.” Laurie Oakes, 2011 Andrew Olle Media Lecture 

Another day, another swipe at the PR industry. This time, the avuncular Laurie Oakes turned the Andrew Olle lecture into the lament of the old guard against the decadence of the new (although I’ll admit, the rest of the lecture was actually very good).

It’s a story as old as history itself, but that doesn’t make it less irritating. Imagine the monks  who spent all their time hand-writing bibles in the 15th Century, sitting around moaning about that damn Gutenberg, his infernal printing press, and the dangers of widespread literacy. Next thing you know, there’s a bloody Renaissance … and then an Enlightenment!

Of course there are downsides to the encroachment of PR people into newsrooms. I love a good investigative report in the newspaper, and it’s sad to see the resources for these stories diminishing.

But newspaper funding models have changed forever; how about the journalists stop wringing their hands over it, and instead work effectively with PR professionals. In fact, a large proportion already do, and appreciate our value: we gather information, round up CEOs to interview, find copies of reports. And we come up with story angles for them.

No one would deny PR has an agenda: we’re out there to profile our clients or company. However, it doesn’t follow, ipso facto, that we’re contributing to the inexorable demise of public morals. Yet there’s an assumption that anything with a commercial intent must be sinister. If it was generated by a media release, capitalism has triumphed! Newsrooms have been tainted! The pure souls of journalism have been sold!

Sure it helps my client to appear in the news, but that doesn’t mean the news isn’t true, relevant or useful. There’s plenty of fluff out there of course – silly surveys with a tangential relevance to a product – but these are only offensive for their inanity, in much the same vein as the Kardashians. And politicians have some pretty awful spin-cycle PR teams – but everyone knows they’re full of shit and ignores them anyway.

However, there’s also a lot excellent and valuable research that companies do, covering everything from employment to productivity. And there are some amazing, impressive experts out there who can give you advice on anything from asset protection to new diabetes treatments. I know, because they are my clients.

PR can get a bit on the nose if it’s trying to manage a negative event (I’m looking at you BP, and your appalling handling of last year’s oil spill). If they do it well, PR people actually help in a crisis by sharing information and keeping the public updated.

But when they don’t manage it well, evasion and prevarication are easy to spot. Bad PR – or what the public thinks of as spin-doctoring – is the same as bad corporate behaviour – you know it when you see it, and you can’t hide it forever. We’re not magicians after all.








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  1. Esther permalink

    I have to admit, I felt my hackles rising (what are hackles anyway?) at the characterisation of journalists as fusty old barnacles trying to stamp out the spread of information, and PR folks as the bringers of light… but the hackles died down as I read the rest of the post – it’s true that there are lots of good PR people out there helping to facilitate good stories and interesting, relevant research. That much we can agree on, Belinda!

  2. Thanks Esther – I promise I have never thought of you as a fusty old barnacle! I believe journalists have a tough gig (for which they don’t generally receive appropriate remuneration). But I also think there are plenty of PR peeps who want to do a good job, for the right reasons.

  3. Matt Lauer on the today show did the same thing the other day when talking with the Starbucks CEO about this jobs initiative the company is launching. It really, really irritated me to hear how he took a swipe at the whole PR industry because he thought Starbucks is creating a loan program for small businesses just to sell more $4 cups of coffee. I lost a little respect for him that day.

    • Thanks Anthony. Yes, it’s like ‘PR’ has become synonymous with ‘cynical corporate exploit’. Which we all know is not true!

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