According to a couple of recent articles, one in Standpoint magazine ("Propaganda Shouldn't Pay" by Nick Cohen) and one in the Guardian ("PRs vs journalists - why there's no moral equivalence between us and them" by Roy Greenslade), there is a war on truth raging between journalists and public relations people. Evidently, this conflict will lead to the eventual meltdown of all media; newspapers and magazines will be a seething mass of advertorials and all journalists will have become PRs because the money is better.
Nick suggests that PRs 'are the nearest thing to prostitutes you can find in public life' and contends that journalists should 'refuse to speak to [them] unless we intend to give them the ridicule and contempt they deserve'. Evidently 'every tinpot PR now thinks he is Alastair Campbell'. Now I genuinely respect Nick Cohen, and I also like him - he's a great journalist and I usually agree with much of what he says. But I think it's probably worth pointing out that I do not see myself as a prostitute and I'm definitely not Alastair Campbell. I don't think I'm 'tinpot' either. but I'm more willing to accept that description! A certain amount of ego, and the ability to believe in the rightness of your own views, goes with the territory, as it does with all journalists too. And that's rather the problem with these two articles; and the reason why journalists get so het up about PR people - and vice versa.
PRs and journalists are creatures born from the same mother - siblings parted in adolescence. Because of this, successful journalists and successful PR people exhibit the same psychological characteristics. They both are determined, energetic, forthright, outspoken, outwardly self-confident and, yes, reasonably egotistical. They need to be all these things to succeed in what are very demanding and incredibly competitive careers.
Some journalists and PRs also have one other thing in common - a propensity for paranoia. That's because there's always a younger person snapping at a journalist or PR's heels - a new wunderkind waiting to take their place. There are more students studying photography at college than there are photographers working in the UK today and I would hazard a guess that the same is true for journalism and media studies. Basically, if you're in the media or a PR there are thousands of young people just waiting for you to mess up so they can take your job. This constant pressure can lead to rash behaviour and strange outbursts by both PRs and journalists.
But while this genetic link and the unremitting pressure explain some of the natural animosity between PRs and journalists, it's worth remembering that not all journalists are the same and neither are all PRs. I have some sympathy with Nick's argument about corporate PR departments. It is their job to plug their company - to 'sell it in' to the media. That's what they're paid for. But actually, the active minority of PR people these days are, like me, enablers or facilitators. We don't 'sell' anything - instead we help individual business people make contact with the media; help them build their reputation and express their own opinions. If that gets them in the newspaper, then great. But actually, getting into the press usually isn't the immediate priority. It's much more likely to be a change in government policy, a new investment deal, personal recognition or a global appointment. Despite what some journalists think, to many high-profile people, the media are an important piece in the jigsaw, but they are not the whole jigsaw itself.
However, PRs and journalists do make a good team when there's a job to be done. When journalists have nothing to write, a column to fill and a massive deadline, they come to PR people like me. They need us, and in my experience there is a great deal of mutual respect and friendship between the two. Journalists would not get access to many high-profile CEOs, business people and politicians without PR people like me - and obviously it's nice when a client can get their views published. It's a win-win.
So, is Nick Cohen right - is there a war going on? Is truth the innocent victim? Ten or fifteen years ago I would have agreed with Nick. I would have said that there was a war; that many PRs were spinning, bending the truth - lying even - to get their clients in the paper and I would agree that journalists were, generally, on the side of truth and decency. I would have agreed that the heavy handed, aggressive PR guru - the Alistair Campbell figure - was the dominant face of British PR. But that was then.
Ten years is a very long time in the media. In those days the default PR strategy was to send out a press release, arrange a photocall or create an event. If that didn't work then some took the aggressive route and harangued journalists in an unprofessional and quite outrageous way. I never took this route but I've spent many an hour offering a shoulder to cry on to journalists for whom it was a constant daily horror. This behaviour seems shameful, laughable and childish now, but that was how it was.
These days I believe this type of PR is dead - and if there are PRs still employing these practices then they're digging their own graves as we speak; victims of an internet that is in its prime. The net has given us online publications, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, podcasts and a completely level playing field. It allows the public to hear a plurality of voices without buying a newspaper or a subscription to a magazine. Those online voices include Nick Cohen - and me. And they also include my clients. So while I understand Nick's argument, with the greatest respect I think he's a little out of date. The press will always be vitally important in PR, but they're just not as important as the public. And today, if PR clients want to reach the public they don't necessarily need to go through a journalist to do it.