'The internet and social media have empowered the PR trade and freed it from subservience to the news media.' This was the provocative starting point for an RSA debate recently, which also asked what this premise meant for the future of journalism and, more importantly, the future of public interest.
The fact you are reading this on the Huffington Post, where I have been able to essentially 'upload' this article of my views without having been either commissioned or edited, reflects one way that the workings of the media industry are changing. I am able to speak to you directly, but with the implied credibility of this trusted media channel.
The debate at the RSA was entitled 'Public Relations: The Master Now' and was held to launch the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism book, co-authored by John Lloyd and Laura Toogood, Journalism and PR: News Media and Public Relations in the Digital Age.
Lloyd, who writes for the FT and is senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute, provided the opening provocation by stating 'PR is now on top. It no longer needs us the way it used to'; journalists used to be able to open the door to PRs 'or even close the door in their faces'. But not any more, he said. So much content reaches the public now without ever having been touched by the sub editor's pen and so many media stories are fed by PR contacts. PR has taken hold of the digital revolution and made it work for them. It has turned all corporations into media corporations.
If we were looking for some symbolism of this shift, Lloyd points to Pearson, the company that owns the FT. The CEO used to be its comms director; the previous boss had once been a journalist. I also used to be a journalist but 'switched to the dark side' several years ago. There were simply more opportunities for me. Robert Peston decried PRs as 'the enemy' earlier this year, but I am one of those firmly in the defense. I work at a specialist agency (Forster Communications) focused on using the power of communications to affect positive social change. I appreciate that not all PR has this focus, but Peston's vitriol should not be seen as an outcry against PR's influence necessarily, but as emblematic of the changing relationship between the media and its audience. PR is essentially about getting a message to an audience. The decision on what channel to use to achieve that comes second. If the media is excluded from this or relies more now on PR to help inform that dialogue, it is partly because of the changing way the public consumes and shares information.
Ed Williams, CEO of Edelman, the world's largest independent PR agency, replied to Lloyd to this effect, saying PR is not the master, the public is - they demand information and the people who can supply it have to appeal to them on their terms. He said there were three macro trends driving PR's ability to influence - the digitalisation of everything (60% of millennials view social media as an important source of their news), the rise of data to make more targeted PR approaches (insight not instinct), and the decline of trust in some traditional media (in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry).
The public is most definitely empowered. Advocacy organisations like change.org, which have millions of members can bring u-turns to corporates and governments. This isn't just about scale - the fact that everyone can now have a voice that matters, changes the way they are treated and communicated with.
The news in many senses is about information, and who you trust to provide the information that is important to you. If a brand can build a relationship with an audience, it can deliver credible news itself. But whilst trust in the media has decreased, there is a huge spectrum - Edelman's annual trust barometer showed trust in the BBC was about ten times that of the Daily Star. The media has to show it is still able to be objective. A positive step - it was announced last month that vloggers will now have to disclose if they have been paid to promote products. We rightly suspect people who are paid to have views.
But good journalism still carries considerable weight. Newspapers and TV can reach important and influential places and can still provide an authentication for a story. In fact, readership of The Times is actually going up. Journalism's non-existence would make it very difficult for PR - my ability to do my job relies on an influential media and furthermore, establishing relationships within the media to understand what they need to make a story work for them. PR depends on strong journalism, but most importantly, the public needs strong journalism. With so many potential channels to get the message out and without the filter of the media for some of those, ethics in PR is now a highly topical issue.
Trish Evans, senior lecturer in public relations at the University of Westminster, was the third panelist. She highlighted that the fictional TV show Babylon references a comms professional within the Metropolitan Police Service who decides to set up a 'Metwork' to bypass the media and get their stories straight out to the public. Lloyd and Toogood's book identifies this approach as a growing trend in the real world.
Black Friday can be seen as a timely case study. It was run as a military operation by brands pushing something that is essentially made up. The media struggled to control the appropriate response and found itself chasing the story rather than leading it. Much news is now more demand driven than producer driven.
If that is a worrying trend, what's the good news? The constant generation and sharing of content means there is increasingly nowhere to hide - transparency is essential if you want to survive in the new media age. So perhaps we can look forward to an era in which greater accountability and enquiry leads to more responsible approaches from more organisations and individuals, as they try to build and maintain our trust. We all have the power to demand more, especially the media.