As George Orwell once said. “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”
This does suggest a level of mutual exclusivity between the two fields.
In his recent speech at the Charles Wheeler lecture the BBC’s economics editor Robert PReston described PR companies as “the enemy”. It has long been a bone of contention within journalism that PR companies attempt to approve copy, control access to sources, spin everything in sight and protect sources at the expense of the truth.
However, with a Cardiff University study finding that one in five newspaper stories and 17% of broadcast stories been verifiably derived mainly or wholly from PR, it would seem that PR companies have got behind enemy lines.
Despite what Preston would see as a dangerous fifth column, it must be argued if the journalistic craft is anything it’s the ability to pick through sources, ascertain their validity, fact check and find truth?
Well, yes it is. However, with ever decreasing budgets, squeezed deadlines and less than 30 minutes per story, shameless promotion does slip through the net. The US now boasts 4.1 PR specialists for every one reporter (1) and this trend seems only set to increase.
However it doesn’t have to be this way. In the animal kingdom, a relationship between two different species is described as symbiotic and can be defined in three ways; parasitic, communal and mutual.
To give this some context the parasitic relationship is when one party (the parasite) benefits and the other (the host) loses. An example of this is ticks. A tick will feed on the blood of mammals. In exchange it will give the mammal Lyme disease which causes kidney, joint and hearty problems.
The industry equivalent is the PR exec who feeds stories to reporters which are not fact checked and is riddled with inaccuracies. The parasitic PR exec gets its client name in the news and in exchange gives the reporter the journalistic equivalent of Lymes disease, loss of reputation, credibility and retractions to print.
The second definition of a relationship is far more preferable and is described as communal. This is when one species benefits and the other is not harmed. An example is natures is the Remora fish. It attaches itself to sharks, rays and whales and then scavenges left over food they have left. Despite the clear cheek of this benefit scrounger of the sea it has no negative ramifications for its partner.
If we apply this to the journalist/PR relationship we get the PR exec supplying the reporter with verified and supported sources. However, they might be poorly written, missing key details or inapplicable to that reporters brief. This hasn’t negatively impacted the reporter as they would have to written stories themselves anyway but it was hardly a net positive for them and takes time.
The final relationship is mutual. This when both parties benefit from the arrangement. It is based around being stronger together than apart. To see this you need do no more than look out of the window. Bees and plants. The bees needs to gather nectar in order to get it through the winter, and the plant needs to spread its pollen in order to procreate.
PR companies, the blooming flowers, are literally nothing without the journalistic bees to come and spread the word. However the journalistic bees are only going keep returning to the flower if they are receiving top quality pollen in the form well written, valid, fact checked stories.
If PR companies insist on parasitic relationships they are eventually going to kill their journalist hosts. However if a mutual relationship can begin, it could be a vital lifeline to the over stretched journalists.
If you are in PR remember, if you can’t be a flower be a Remora fish. Just never be a tick.