The continuing case for cutting out the middlemen

Last week, I posted commentary about an article by John Lloyd in the Financial Times on the relationship – I used the word symbiosis: check the definition – between journalism and PR in politics. The concluding point in my post was this:

[…] Most PRs and journalists add little value to truth-telling if they’re nothing more than channels or conduits who distort and manipulate the original message. Assuming, of course, that their roles are to do with truth-telling. If you want to get close to the truth, cut out the middlemen. Let the citizens make up their own minds as to what is truth.

That provocative comment was the catalyst for a discussion in the post that, at the last count, ran to 52 comments and trackbacks. It also prompted most conversation participants – David Tebbutt, Philip Young, Chris Edwards and Sherrilynne Starkie – to sound off on their own blogs, opening up further conversations there and in other blogs that linked to theirs. The post attracted the attention of David Miliband, Minister of Communities and Local Government in the UK and a member of the cabinet.

A terrific discussion that, while it looks like it’s run its course in my blog, certainly doesn’t indicate the end of different opinions about the concluding point I made.

Now, a new window has been opened onto the journalism/PR symbiosis point with a letter to the FT editor published in the paper on 29 April, with some rather interesting opinions relating to John Lloyd’s FT article.

The letter-writer – an ITN News reporter – has such an astonishingly-naive view about both PR and journalism that you have to wonder how on earth he has a job as a news reporter. (A cynical observer might say that perhaps he was in bad PR at some point in his career.)

For instance:

[…] Journalists at least start from the premise that their role is to provide accurate information to their audience. PRs do not even start from this point. Rather they begin from the position that their role is to make their bosses (company, political party, whatever) look as good as possible.

And this:

I accept there are many PRs who want to make their bosses look good but are not prepared to go beyond the truth in order to do that. Not least they understand that their future credibility depends on not “lying”. But truth is not their primary goal. For most journalists truth is the primary target even if the pressures of sales and audience figures push some off course sometimes.

Best of all:

Journalists don’t need to understand PRs, it will simply damage our work.

With points of view like this, I rest my case on cutting out the middlemen. Especially some journalists.

[Update 3 May] Olivier Blanchard at Corante has written an excellent op/ed piece relating to John Lloyd’s FT article and my first post.

The heart of the matter:

[…] Ultimately, PR and journalism are forced to exist symbiotically if they are to remain relevant to marketers in the century to come. In the best of worlds, where professionalism, honesty and respect for every element of a story (the subject, the channel, AND the public), PR professionals can be a tremendous source of timely and accurate information for journalists. Likewise, journalists can provide PR professionals with the kind of exposure their clients crave… But in the worst of worlds, where respect, honesty and professionalism sometimes aren’t in the picture, where the interest of one side outweighs that of the other, this relationship becomes grossly dysfunctional, and trust goes right out the window.

Without trust, PR and journalism (insofar as they pertain to the corporate world) both become completely irrelevant not only to each other, but to us – the public – as well.

Now that adds real value to this discussion.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Richard Bailey

    I’ve been on the fringes of this discussion and agree that there’s some shocking naivety on show (Cristina Odone writing in The Observer for me wins the prize).

    But to have people in PR as cheerleaders in the death of so-called mainstream media is equally unedifying, and counter-productive. If we applaud as independent channels disappear then we’re left with a gap: please don’t expect me to believe that blogs will fill it.

    Public relations may have the messages and the will, but do its practitioners have the balance and the editing skills to fill public communications channels? I do defend the ethics of public relations within a consumer democracy with a free press. But I don’t want to live in a society where public relations channels are supreme. Persuasion – which some challenge as unethical – seems wholly acceptable compared to that.

  2. Sherrilynne Starkie

    Blogs add value to communication with target audiences, but they are unlikely to replace MSM. Research out today says that just three percent of people look to blogs as their main news source.

    Professionals on both sides of the media relations divide should remember that, regardless of who pays our invoice, PRs’ “customers” are actually the journalists and editors that report to target audiences. When PRs serve journalists well and support their needs, we ultimately serve our clients well.

  3. neville

    It’s not about blogs, Richard, which are just the tools. To me, it’s about PR and journalism adding something of real value rather than simply the spin, etc, I mentioned.

    Sherrilynne, I’d argue that as blogs are purely tools, they can’t add value. The value comes from what you add to a message than gives (perceived) value to the receiver of that message. The channel won’t help you do that.

  4. neville

    I do understand it, Sherrilynne. Maybe I was a bit tired when I left my comment last night as it does look a bit odd :)

    So to clarify – blogs are tools. Tools themselves don’t add value. How you use them could.

    Does that make better sense?

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