Are you a PR bullshitter?

About the author

Richard Bailey Hon FCIPR is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Robert Peston
Robert Peston

Media relations may feel more like PR’s past than its future. But you shouldn’t ignore the lessons of the past.

Robert Peston lectureThe CIPR and the PRCA have both leapt to the defence of the PR business following a lecture given by BBC economics editor Robert Petson.

To understand Peston’s argument, you need some context.

Journalists are immensely (and rightly) proud of their past: the history of journalism in Britain links to the struggle for free speech, democracy and individual liberty.

It takes in names like John Milton and it’s not a dry and dead debate: we’re still watching a contest between free expression and censorship in areas like government surveillance.

This is why the question of press control raised by the Leveson Inquiry into the Culture, Practice and Ethics of the Press is so contentious.

The BBC, Peston’s employer, may appear less subject to the commercial pressures facing other broadcasters and all print publications – but it faces the huge political and technological challenge of renegotiating the licence fee in an age of multiple devices and widespread internet access.

So, let me summarise his arguments. There are threats to serious journalism, from:

Online culture.

Journalists are judged by comments, likes and shares. ‘It is all about, awful word, monetising news.’ So what about unpopular (but important) investigations? Are you more likely to click on a story about Edward Snodwen or one about Kim Kardashian? Honestly? The blurring between news and commerce is evident in the rise of ‘native advertising’ (a reinvention of advertorial techniques suitable for websites).

PR pitfalls.

Peston’s not the first to comment on the imbalance of power between PR people and understaffed editorial teams (for more on this, I recommend Nick Davies’s Flat Earth News). Nor is he alone in his view on PR (‘the point is that as a journalist I have never been in any doubt that PRs are the enemy’).

Lies, damn lies and PR bullshit

“To put it another way, many PRs can be seen both as more pernicious than the individual who consciously speaks the truth or the person who consciously lies – in that the liar knows that he is a liar, but many professional bullshitters have lost the capacity to see the difference between fact and fiction. I should point out that of course PRs aren’t the only bullshitters; but if they are not paid to bullshit, to present their clients in the best possible light, what are they being paid to do?”

His point isn’t the simple one that PR people are liars (that would be easy to deal with). It’s that PR people are not neutral voices, they’re paid advocates who represent a particular perspective. The distinction between ‘the truth’ and ‘the whole truth’ is made in the oath taken in a law court. PR people can and should tell the truth, but have little credibility on ‘the whole truth’ as this involves the perspectives of competitors and opponents.

How should we respond?

It’s easy to attack the press. We can all point to errors, omissions, oversights and we all know of examples of illegal activities like phone hacking. But to attack the press is to risk attacking free speech. Even Margaret Thatcher, who suffered a very difficult beginning to her time as Prime Minister, would shrug her shoulders and comment ‘you can’t have a free society without a free press’.

I’d argue it’s in our interest to defend, not undermine, a free press. So it’s our job to act as intermediaries between organisations and journalists and to help each side understand each other’s position (‘peace, love and mutual understanding’). I recall on several occasions pushing back at clients who understood well the principle of a free market but who seemed oddly blind to the role of a free press. There’s always the advertising route if clients want the control and certainty of media placement.

Never explain, never complain

It is our job to correct errors, but I’d advise against complaining about ‘bad’ coverage or praising ‘good’ press coverage. Both undermine editorial independence. If the client or employer presses you hard on this, remind them of the importance of developing a longer-term relationship with journalists rather than merely seeking short-term publicity. It’s the difference between a committed relationship and a one-night-stand.

If you still don’t get the distinction between short-term and long-term, then consider two trades that are even worse examples than our own. Do you welcome unsolicited sales pitches offering you kitchens or double glazing? Of course you don’t.

And would you want a relationship with someone who simply wants to embed a barely relevant back link into your website? There’s a whole industry trying to game search results that has no interest in developing relationships. It’s an industry that also thinks it can replace public relations but has no chance of doing so unless it learns about relevance and relationships.

The media and PR

PR practitioners have a multitude of media channels available to them. There are the now-familiar categories of owned, paid as well as earned media. And never forget interpersonal media (actually talking to people – not a bad idea if you want to develop your relationship with them). So it may seem that the independent media is more trouble than it’s worth given the lack of love and respect we get back from journalists. That would be wrong.

In the media world Clay Shirky characterises as ‘filter then publish’ anyone can say anything about anyone at any time. But one tweet alone does not create a storm, it only becomes important if it’s filtered. It’s the power to magnify that matters, and the major media (broadcast channels and national newspapers) remain important filters and magnifiers of news.

Have you considered that for every one of your attempts at positive publicity they’ve filtered out, they may also have rejected several pitches from competitors and activists seeking to undermine your organisation’s position?

Finally, before you jump to criticise the media, why not try a bit of self-criticism. Look back through your past few press releases. How many of them lead with the organisation as the subject of the story?

If it’s most of them (and it mostly will be), perhaps you need to rediscover what makes news. Was the discovery of penicillin all about XYZ Pharma? Or was it a story about how many lives could be saved?

Clearly, there’s a regulatory role to many PR news announcements that requires the organisation to be the subject of its own announcements. But that should not preclude a more creative approach to many other ‘announcements’.

Half a century ago, Daniel Boorstin criticised PR for creating ‘pseudo events’. Today, we’re attempting just this more often than ever. Let’s start with self-criticism and self-awareness before we leap to throw stones at others.