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A Response to Robert Peston's Comments on the PR Industry

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I read Robert Peston's critique - rant might be a more appropriate word - against my industry. And in truth, I thought for a few moments that it was a spoof. That no senior journalist could possibly write such a venomous, ill-judged diatribe.

My second reaction, on realising that it was indeed a genuine article, was to attack the man's credentials. I reached for his oh-so-insightful biography of Gordon Brown. I read his view that Brown 'can look back on his long years as Chancellor with satisfaction' and rather questioned his judgement.

But then I decided that such an analysis would be beneath me. So I offer this one instead, in response to his comments:

My final worry is that the relentless cycle of cost cutting at the traditional news media, and the very economical staffing of much of the new news media, gives growing and potentially worrying power to the public relations industry.

I'm sorry? Whose fault is this? Who cut their prices in futile circulation wars? Who decided to put their content available online for free? Who cut their journalism rolls to the bone? Ah yes. The papers themselves.

There are a number of aspects to this. Many news organisations now lack the resources to generate enough of their own high-quality stories to fill their editions. When I worked on the Sunday Telegraph a decade ago, the fax machine was strategically placed above the waste paper basket so that press releases went straight into what we called the round filing cabinet. Now newspapers are filled with reports based on spurious PR generated surveys and polls, simply to save time and money.

How contemptible is it to make such a lame remark about his fax machine? I imagine there are many members of the PRCA who might be dubious about some newspaper articles. But they have the good manners not to be so crass.

More disturbing, perhaps, PRs seems to have become more powerful and effective as gatekeepers and minders of businesses, celebrities and public or semi-public figures. In part, that is because in some news organisations there is a fetishisation of hiring young people, who supposedly understand the digital world and what youth want to read much better than people of my generation. But the problem with many of these younger journos is that they have few proper contacts and inadequate contacts. So if they don't suck up to the PR, they don't get the interview or the story. Which in turn means that unhealthy deals are being done, with the young hacks agreeing not to ask embarrassing questions and to send the copy back to the PR for approval. Also, PRs are routinely feeding questions to inexperienced journalists, and insisting on certain hashtags being used when stories are tweeted. All of this is hideous, and degrading to our trade.

Pure rubbish. Yes, many journalists are more involved in social media. Yes, it's the future of communications. Do PR people 'routinely' 'insist' on hashtags? No. Would any journalist who sent copy back to PRs for approval be worthy of a job? No. Would my members ask them to? No.

What is more, the socialising between senior PRs and proprietors and senior news-media executives means it is increasingly common for PRs to think it is acceptable to ring their mates at the top of news organisations and ask for stories to be skewed, or - if already published - removed from websites. I know of a number of examples were harried executives have conceded.

Mr Peston should get better friends if they are leant on so easily. It simply doesn't happen. Though it is, of course, the regular whine of a journalist whose story had been pulled because it wasn't accurate enough; entertaining enough; or simply written well-enough...

Now to coin a phrase, some of my best friends are in PR. Which is not a joke by the way. And before anyone accuses me of being a po-faced, sanctimonious git (which well I may be) I have had quite a few great stories from PRs. But the very best came in the 1990s from PRs who were rogues and pirates - and those stories were usually spectacularly damaging to their clients. In other words, PRs were just sources to be milked like any another source. But today's PR industry has become much more machine-like, controlled - and in its slightly chilling way - professional.

Rogues and pirates? Wow. My industry members sign up to rigorous codes. His are in the dock -literally...

The point is that as a journalist I have never been in any doubt that PRs are the enemy. Pretty much my first action when I joined the FT in 1991 as head of financial services was to tell the team that they would be in serious trouble if I heard them talking on the phone to a corporate PR rather than a chief executive or chairman. My view has never changed.

I think the best explanation of why our mission as hacks is always to try to get around the PR, to sideline him or her, was made by Harry Frankfurt in his essay "On Bullshit", when he wrote:

"The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides ... is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; ... [The bullshitter] is neither on the side of the true, nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest with getting away with what he says."

Or 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?

I did recently wonder whether we had reached one kind of high point of PR-driven madness when the Financial Conduct Authority - which has been bizarrely obsessed for a regulator with its public image - briefed the Telegraph about its muscular approach to beating up insurance companies, and then had to retract within hours when the article published by the Telegraph caused mayhem on the stock market.

Anyway here perhaps is the best evidence of how news organisations' own ethical lapses in recent years - and not just phone hacking - has been devastating to how the public sees us. Which is that PRs who have claimed that they represent the defence of truth and decency against a predatory and defamatory media haven't been seen as utterly ridiculous. God how our own stables have needed cleaning.


I'll critique this long piece in one go.

Wow. What a sanctimonious few paragraphs. PR is the enemy? Tell that to the journalists who every day rely upon PRCA members to help them fill their copy; to confirm their facts; to give them the news.

Now, Mr Peston might regret that this is the case. But he should deal with the world as it is, rather than the utopia he might like it to be. And if he talks to his colleagues in the rather large BBC press department, I'm sure they'll set him straight.

Here's the truth, tough as if might be for him to accept. His industry relies upon mine. For facts. For opinions. For copy.

If journalism takes the word of just one PR person as the only side to the story, then it should be ashamed of its laziness. If it thinks that just to listen to PR people is some sin in itself, that it should be ashamed of its arrogance.

Either way, this article displays zero knowledge of my industry. A sad comment on a man whose lifeblood depends upon it.

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