After attending an angry lecture delivered by journalist Robert Peston, I wrote a piece for the Guardian arguing that he was wrong to paint PRs as purely “the enemy” of journalists.
I came away from it feeling excited for the future shape of journalism, inspired by the elastic potential of journalism to be brilliant, as well as being made to feel afraid to admit that I work in PR. Like announcing “I’m a babykiller”, it tends to provoke a negative reaction, but for PR it’s normally not deserved. As for the reaction to Peston’s speech, journalists have revelled in hating the “professional bullshitters”, and the head of the PRCA Francis Ingham has piped up to protest that it’s the PR’s job to “give [journalists] the news”.
Peston was concerned that too much of what gets into the news is created by PR agencies.
That’s one of the main things that put me off a career in PR. He was also worried about the quality of journalism such as BuzzFeed’s listicles, citing 18 Dogs Who Love The Open Road, but that is down to giving readers what they want – something he calls “going too far in allowing readers to dictate content”. Peston, being bringer of bad news as he reports on the economy, presumably knows that people need light entertainment as well as hard news.
So what was the point of this PR-bashing? He was hammering home that people need to do their jobs better – which applies to both journalists and PRs. He’s an opinionated man, even referring to himself as “eccentric” and he was certainly rattling some cages. For the younger people in the room (of whom there were very few, being largely an over-50s event) it was a call to arms, and perhaps for the older ones it served as a eulogy for the mythical golden era of newspaper journalism.
His words were slightly less venomous when spoken in the room than when they appeared in print and online over the following days, but some of the generalisations did seem unfair. I asked a former journalist from Media Week for his opinion, which was that just as many harsh assumptions are made about journalists. The average PR person might treat journalists like deities, but Joe Public often believes ‘hacks’ to be devious and underhand: unjust terms that could be used to tar either industry. Questionable practices do exist in both journalism and PR, so it’s up to an individual to decide what they feel is acceptable and to pursue a job in an organisation with the right values.
In his book The Universal Journalist, published before the phone hacking scandal, David Randall says that “we can decide that there are some things we will not do and leave the paper – either discreetly after having found another post, or publicly, in a blaze of righteous indignation. If more of us did that, and made clear our reasons for doing so, journalism would be better for it.”
So if hacks can be badly behaved, are the PRs really “the enemy” as Peston calls us? Do we provide value to journalists as well as our clients? In terms of what our role is, we are a resource for journalists to use and abuse, a little black book for our clients, and we’re paid to know what’s newsworthy. If a client’s piece of ‘news’ will not be of interest to the media, they need to be told so, and a good agency won’t gloss over that fact, it will advise as to what is worth sharing. And at the risk of being misinterpreted, we are also paid to be creative. We come up with ideas that the press actively want to use – a journalist confessed to me that around a third of his stories came from PRs, and felt this was usual for the industry. Peston also felt that just feeding facts to the media would get boring, but a public relations job offers the chance to shape the marketing strategy and, at a more senior level, even to shape the overall business strategy of a given company.
Working in a small company, I’ve had a lot of strategic input with clients and been given a lot of freedom. I don’t identify with the majority of what Peston described and I enjoy working with a team of former journalists with an unwritten policy of “no bullshit” – though I think for some large corporate agencies or overly ‘fluffy’ consumer agencies Peston may well be correct. However, he is worried about the presence of “bullshit”, and actually it’s a journalist’s job to know what bullshit is. Good journalists simply ignore or block PRs who provide useless or deliberately vague information, so the young journalists Peston criticises could do with more guidance (as well as more pay).
Robert Peston has certainly stirred something up in people on both sides of the fence, and I see it as an incentive to do a better job, to maintain a critical mind about what constitutes quality journalism, and above all to continually question the news value of everything.
You can read the original article on the Guardian website here.