Who’s the one to blame? The dispute between PR and Journalism

Below you’ll find an essay I have recently written. Frankly speaking, I evaluate the debate between journalists and PR professionals. It seems that journalists like blaming PR people, not least because they are an easy target. Isn’t it obvious? Those damn PR guys – ‚the dark site‘ – want to influence, no, manipulate public opinion and perceptions, and it is the poor journalist who suffers. In the essay at hand I try to figure out if this thesis is really the case.

Since it is a somewhat lengthy and academic piece, I decided to upload it to Slideshare as a PDF. Either you can read it there in the player or download it. I think it is the most convenient way to access the PDF especially because it has a nice layout and a great readability. Alternatively, for all those who prefer reading it directly on the blog I also published the text here. You find it after the break. Please note however, that the list of references is missing here and can only be found in the PDF.

Either way, let me know your opinion in the comments!

Thomas Euler (@Twitter: ThomasE)

Who’s the one to blame?

The debate about investigative journalism and Public Relations within the framework of the public sphere in a time of transition in the media industry


Public Relations (PR) often is part of a popular debate that blames the professional communication of companies, politicians, parties and further groups for having a negative effect on the public sphere. It is, for instance, claimed that PR causes a decrease in the quality as well as the amount of investigative journalism throughout the media and therefore hinders a transparent and fact-based public debate.

After outlining the relevance of investigative journalism within a democratic society and positioning Public Relations within this framework, the present essay is going to demonstrate the most common accusations regarding PR and test the validity of those statements. To this end, it will investigate if PR is responsible for the negative outcomes that are depicted by its critics or if in fact a structural problem within the media landscape and journalism is the root of the problems. In this context a closer look is taken on the influence of the internet on the traditional media and investigative journalism in particular, and which impacts this has on Public Relations in theory and praxis. As a result the author will draw conclusions regarding the impact PR has on investigative journalism and the public debate and, moreover, will give recommendations for the behaviour of journalism and PR in times of a drastically changing media landscape.

Investigative Journalism in the context of the public sphere

A democratic society demands quality, investigative journalism. Habermas (1989) developed the model of the public sphere, which he describes as the realm where private individuals come together to discuss public issues in order to form a public opinion and will. In modern democratic societies, free media is a major contributor to the public sphere because it provides the individuals with the necessary information about what those public issues are and which opinions, viewpoints and arguments exist around these, so the people can make informed decisions. Moreover, journalism does not only have the object to inform the public, but also to act as a watchdog: As McNair (2000) explains for the political context, media institutions must scrutinise governmental actions and party efforts in order to provide the public with legitimising information. The same can also be considered as valid for information about businesses, which aims to establish transparency concerning individual companies and markets, again in order to allow stakeholders making informed decisions.

Hence, journalists must critically check information of different sources, as well as research and uncover facts that otherwise would not have reached the public (eg because politicians or corporations would not have published them on their own). It is this ideal of a press designed „to act on behalf of the people and report on and give voice to those in positions of political, corporate, economic and social responsibility“ (Schultz 1998, p.1) that lead to the media‘s self-proclaimed position as the fourth estate. This term refers to the press in direct differentiation to the three other estates – clergy, nobility and commoners – in pre-revolution France. A more contemporary term is the German word vierte Gewalt (fourth branch) that origins from the separation of powers within democratic societies and establishes the press as the fourth branch next to executive, legislature and judiciary. For the press being able to meet these expectations, it must fulfil the normative ideal of Habermas (1996) who demands journalists being independent from political and social pressure and open for public concerns and proposals to secure their role as the mandatory of an enlightened society.

Public Relations – the evil spinners

Contrary to the press as an important component of a well-functioning democratic society, Public Relations is, according to the categorical opinion of many critics, inherently unethical or, plainly spoken, an evil simply because of its existence. This view is articulated from scholars and popular authors alike, even though their arguments differ in detail. Public commentators often fail to differentiate between propaganda and Public Relations, and blame PR for being manipulative, spin doctoring and cynically exploiting the media (McCrystal, 2008) and therefore, frankly, as a necessarily lying practice.

Even though some PR practitioners rely on such techniques, as the case Damian McBride popularly demonstrated recently, it is a popular however false generalisation to extrapolate from them on the whole Public Relations discipline. Scandals like this led, according to Seitel (2007, p.12), ―to the notion that ’spinning the facts‘ is synonymous with public relations practice. It isn‘t. Spinning an answer to hide what really happened—that is, lying, confusing, distorting, obfuscating, whatever you call it—is antithetical to the proper practice of public relations. In public relations, if you lie once, you will never be trusted again—particularly by the media.‖ Moreover, McNair (2004, p.337) argues that simply the fact that today PR is often in the focus of investigative journalism ―implies that, if the activities of political PR practitioners must be monitored and lapses publicly criticised, in the same way that journalism is regulated to prevent ethical breaches, neither the practice in itself, however, nor those who practise it, deserve to be demonised from the outset as enemies of democracy, pathological liars, communication perverts and pornographers, or any of the other phrases which regularly appear in the academic and journalistic literature about political PR.

Critical scholars on the other hand have a more differentiated view than popular critics, however with a similar result, as exemplary illustrated by a statement from Salter (2005, p.98), who argues that even PR professionals „with good intentions are unable to act ethically without prejudicing their capacity to be (instrumentally) good public relations agents“ because they are not capable of providing transparent and not intentionally selected information.

The meaning of PR within a democratic society

However, the fact those views fail to acknowledge is that for a democratic society to work it is necessary that all members of the society have the opportunity to express their opinions within the public sphere so that all individuals that constitute the public have access to the largest possible amount of information. Only if this is assured, an informed public decision can be made and a balance of interests be guaranteed. Therefore, politicians, companies and other organisations (or individuals) need to be able to participate in the debates within the public sphere. They must be allowed to share their views on certain topics of their concern, so they aren‘t overheard when decisions that are of relevance to them are made. Thus, organisations need a department that is in charge of its communication with those parts of the public that are important for or interested in the organisation – the stakeholders.

This task is performed by the Public Relations function. Grunig and Hunt (1984) identified four levels of PR practice. Probably the most ideal level is two-way symmetric communication, which aims for mutual understanding between the organisation (which employs PR) and its stakeholders. Moreover, in this model PR does not only act as a sender but also listens to its stakeholders in order to balance the interests and achieve a result that is desirable for all parties involved. Indeed, this presents a means of PR that is in sync with a healthy public sphere in Habermas‘ sense. However, often this model is far from the reality found in PR praxis and hardly can fulfil all PR tasks, most notably not in a business environment. This is, because those who use PR do so for a reason: they want to achieve certain goals. This can only be realised by convincing others of the own opinion. Accordingly, Grunig and Hunt‘s next stage, two-way asymmetric communication, where the communication is also bidirectional but always in favour of the sender that aims to promote his own opinion, is more likely to meet the expectations that most organisations have in PR.

Journalists as victims of spin

To be sure, PR critics will argue that simply by intending to convince others and not communicating neutrally, PR becomes unethical (Salter, 2005). However, consequently following this reasoning everybody who publicly champions a view would act unethical – an idea that is absolutely inconsistent with the ideal of a liberal, enlightened society. Accordingly, it seems more appropriate to think about PR as a legitimate act of opinion expression, which – and that‘s the crux of the matter – must be questioned and put into context by an independent journalism (Jenkins, 2006).

Yet, journalists like to blame Public Relations for not providing them with impartial facts and information but instead spinning stories in a way they match the interest of the PR‘s client. Julia Hobsbawm (2003) quite apt labelled this as journalist-as-victim-of-spin culture. An example for this accusation is the statement of journalist Bryan Appleyard (2003) who wrote that the „truth has been destroyed by public relations executives, or ‗scum‘ as we like to call them‖. In more detail, Vincent Graff (2005) summarises his peer‘s opinion on PR, albeit not without self criticism: „Journalists are used to playing the patsy. We are familiar with the opinion pollsters‘ rankings of our trustworthiness alongside estate agents and second-hand car salesmen. So, […] we need to find a victim of our own […]. And, for the past 100 years, we have had one: the public relations industry. For all the faults of journalism, PR is 10 times grubbier, we declare. At least (on a good day) we are seeking the truth. A PR is paid by his or her client to shield people from it.“

McNair (2004, p.326) claims that such an anti PR-consensus exists amongst journalists and scholars. Simplified the argument goes somewhat like this: Because PR professionals spread their lies amongst journalists and the public, the fourth estate is increasingly exploited by PR and therefore is constrained in its ability to serve the public sphere. As a result, society and democracy suffer because the amount of true information to base decisions on decreases.

The journalist’s negligence

Even though this might initially sound plausible, close inspection reveals that this argument does not address the real cause of an increasingly PR infiltrated media landscape. People and organisations have communicated with the press for as long as it exits and, besides this communication has not always been called PR, the principles of the PR-Press-relation haven‘t changed a lot. Still PR aims to influence journalists so they publish favourable stories, and still the journalist has to question and double-check every bit of information s/he receives.

Thus, in case those are right who argue that today‘s newspapers are too loaded with PR at the expense of investigative, quality journalism, the following question is raised: How can journalists overlook that the information they receive from Public Relations professionals is partial by definition and how is it that they don‘t verify – and if required rectify – the information they receive from them? The answer to it is partially given by Hobsbawm (2003) who argues that journalists increasingly rely on co-operations with PR because they work under an extreme pressure. She writes: ―For the journalist who has to cover a story in half an hour (and often in less time than that), the communications expert can be a lifeline: for facts and figures and basic information-gathering.

The media industry’s structure negatively influences investigative journalism
The reason behind the pressure that Hobsbawm mentions is a structural problem of the media landscape. The industry is highly competitive and driven by the need to make profits. Therefore, news and investigative reports are basically commodities that must be profitable (Chambers, 2000). These basic conditions negatively affect the media‘s ability and affinity to produce investigative journalism because it is rather expensive, especially compared to copy-and-paste-a-press-release journalism. Within recent years the pressure increased further when many editorial departments shrank in size. The newspaper industry was most deeply hurt; most dramatically in the USA but it is expected to face rough times also in the UK with 10.000 jobs in the regional press predicted to disappear by 2012 (Kirwan, 2009). The main drivers for this situation are a decrease in print advertising revenue and a loss of circulation, both of which are bred not least by a transition of readers from print to online (Mutter and Jarvis, 2009).

Is there a media revolution?

According to author and Interactive Telecommunications professor Clay Shirky (2009), the newspaper industry is in the middle of a revolution, a period in which ―old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place‖. And indeed, there are indications that seem to prove him right. Tradition-rich newspapers like the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, among others, were shut down in the USA. In many other countries the industry suffers from job cutbacks and it is rather a question of when than if other printed newspapers are going to follow the American way. On the other hand, the revenues generated online can in most cases not yet compensate the decline in print advertising revenues and neither pay for the expenses necessary to maintain the editorial infrastructure.

The former Observer editor and Journalism professor Donald Trelford (2009) summarises the issue: ―The industry in which I have spent half a century may have to learn very quickly that society doesn’t need newspapers any more. But it will still need journalism to find things out and explain the world’s complexities. The challenge – not just for newspaper companies, but for society as a whole – is how to pay for that when traditional sources of revenue have disappeared or moved elsewhere‖ The problem is, as Shirky (2009) argues, no business model has yet been found that solidly finances expensive investigative journalism online. Indeed, that is a danger for the public sphere because at the present time print newspapers create a large amount of the investigative journalism that is beneficial for society. Nonetheless Shirky (2009) is right when he writes ―‘You‘re gonna miss us when we‘re gone!‘ has never been much of a business model‖.

The internet under journalistic fire

As a result of this situation journalists started to blame the internet for being a jeopardy to investigative journalism and therefore society as a whole, similar to the impeachments against PR. For instance, Frank Schirrmacher (2007), publisher of the German Newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), argued that the internet is responsible for a societal moral decline as well for an increasing number of non-readers without presenting any evidence for his hypotheses. When looking for similar undifferentiated statements you will find plenty because the journalists are scared – no wonder considering numbers like this: for any lost print reader a newspaper must attract 10 online readers because advertisers estimate the value of an online reader only at 10% of a print reader (Hari, 2009) – and react like a child that dreads punishment: they put the blame on others.

Admittedly, the today’s journalist has dire straits. While he tries to fulfil the tasks that are inflicted on him by the public, the economic circumstances force him to work under an increased pressure and on top of that his solitary role as fourth estate – bridge between power and public – is under attack from PR and the Internet, where all of a sudden everybody has the ability to publish. McNair wrote: „We live in an era of proliferating media outlets, it is generally acknowledged, but their content is increasingly shaped by the low, base needs of commerce and profit rather than the higher motivations of culture and civic duty.“ (2000, p.X)

But who’s the one to blame?

Is it the Internet, that undermines the position of investigative journalism by giving a voice to an unqualified mass of people that doesn‘t care for journalistic values, as Süddeutsche Zeitung vice editor-in-chief Bernard Graff (2007) claims? No. Blogs and other means of online publishing are only a platform on which content is presented. Hence it is of course possible to publish quality journalistic content online. Therefore, it is not possible to make a general statement about the internet and its journalistic quality (Bradshaw, 2008). Also PR, as outlined earlier in this text, is not the reason for the decline of investigative journalism and an assumed loss of quality in the public debate. Instead, it is a popular scapegoat that blocks the view on the real problem that journalism is facing at the moment.

We live in a time of drastic structural change or even revolution of the media landscape. Investigative journalism must find a way to survive in this hostile environment. By no means may it be allowed to become a victim of this crisis or democracy itself will be deeply hurt. Luckily, different (business) models for journalism are not only thinkable but already reality. For instance, the founder of the political blog Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington (2009), launched an independent, non-profit fund that will produce investigative journalism. It will employ staff writers as well as freelancers and pay their wages. The resulting journalistic pieces can be used by all media – for free. Developments like this might well indicate a path for the future of quality journalism.

For PR, too, the current situation brings up issues. A major one is how it should best deal with its increased ability to place its stories in the media, which is due to the pressure under which journalists have to work. The answer is that PR professionals shouldn‘t take advantage of this in order not to damage their own profession. This would finally happen if – driven by large amounts of PR in the media – the scepticism against the media, which is already spreading, grew to a point where the press loses its credibility and public trust. At this point PR messages would also have lost their effectiveness because the conveyer of the message would have lost his. Therefore, placing PR stories only because it is possible means swapping long-term success for the short-term hype whilst at the same time eliminating the breeding ground of the whole PR profession. Instead, PR must strive to support journalism in its attempt to act as an independent fourth estate – if not for ethical reasons then for sheer self-preservation. In doing so, PR accepts the role of opinion expression it has within the framework of the political sphere without acting on cost of investigative journalism. Thereby it serves the public – the scope and major stakeholder of both, PR and journalism – as a valuable contributor to the public sphere.

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