The Timorous Watchdog

The history of Public Relations did not end in the 1950s although, for the time being, my history of it does. It suffices to say that, while the past 70 years have seen its fortunes rise and fall, the trend has always been upward.

In 2015, the top five largest PR firms globally (Edelman, Weber Shandwick, Fleischman Hillard, Ketcham, Burson Marstelller, and MSL Group) had combined revenues of $3.7bn. All but MSL are American. The largest British firm was Brunswick (twelfth on the list), with revenues in 2015 of $220m.[1] It’s perhaps a portent that ninth on the list, BlueFocus, is Chinese.

The industry today has resources, reach, and techniques that would doubtless dazzle pioneers like Ivy Lee, George Creel, and Edward Bernays but, beneath the 21st Century lustre, they’d recognise the same driving purpose. While still deployed to sugar the pill of bigotry, mendacity, and atrocity we call ‘war,’ PR has long been used mainly to further private interests: businesses, charities, public institutions, and so forth. In short, to sell.

The social justification for public relations in a free society, Scott Cutlip argues, is to ‘ethically and effectively plead the cause of a client or organization in the freewheeling forum of public debate. It is a basic democratic right that every idea, individual, and institution shall have a full and fair hearing in the public forum  that their merit ultimately must be determined by their ability to be accepted in the marketplace.’[2] I’ll examine the practice of this theory next week. Right now, however, I’ll concern myself with what should be a bulwark against the hucksters, the flimflam, and the snake oil: the free press.

In terms of boots on the ground, journalists in the US have long been outnumbered by PR battalions. According to US Bureau of Labor statistics, as of May 2016 there were 40,090 reporters and correspondents compared with 226,940 PR specialists; a ratio of 5.6 to 1 in PR’s favour.[3] In the UK, matters are rather different. The most recent Labour Force Survey estimates that, in 2016, there were 84,000 journalists and 49,000 PR professionals but this does encompass an unexplained single year increase of 20,000. Most of that increase is accounted for by those describing themselves as self-employed or freelance. With those excluded entirely, the overall number of journalists drops to 47,000.[4]

The relationship between journalism and PR has traditionally been held to be uneasy at best.  In 2011, for instance, a YouGov survey of journalists found that just one percent of respondents trusted PR agencies ‘a great deal’ and sixty-one percent did not trust them ‘very much’ or ‘at all’.[5] The Senior Principal at Flatiron Communications, Peter Himler, writes of the ‘historical love-hate relationship between journalists and PR professionals,’ which results not merely from mistrust but also competing priorities and pressure of work (for instance, PR professionals using electronic systems to deluge journalists’ inboxes with ‘greater volumes of misguided or inane story pitches’).[6] The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade describes journalists as the people with the  ‘requisite scepticism about PR blurbs and supposed knowledge of the topic to provide readers/consumers with an analysis that will allow them to make an informed decision/choice.’[7]

The conflict model, however, has recently been recast as a “trading” relationship in which journalists, working in under-resourced and under-staffed newsrooms, increasingly rely on PR sources for editorial copy in return for access to editorial columns for PR stories. In Flat Earth News, Nick Davies paints a fascinating picture of an emaciated and timorous watchdog: starved of time and money, in thrall to the powerful, and forced to run cheap, safe stories to attract new readers and affirm the prejudices of those they already have,

The overt links to the media and the whole well-worn idea of ‘spin’ scarcely begin to capture the breadth and ingenuity of the tactics which are now used by the global industry of public relations. And it is this huge industry of manipulation – targeted at a structurally vulnerable media –  which feeds falsehood and distortion directly into our news channels , without the old-fashioned need to use proprietors or advertisers as levers.[8]

The advent of audience analytics means that for many major news retailers content is no longer driven by journalists’ intuition but a data-driven assessment of consumer preferences.[9] A recent survey of British journalists argues that it ‘remains unclear to what extent they feel bullied by this into the clickbait game, rather than feeling that they can use the data to make better, independent decisions about how to provide a service the audience values.’[10] Journalists at the large UK regional news publisher Trinity Mirror, for instance, have reportedly been told to ‘focus relentlessly on the content that we know gives us the most return for our effort… and [be] ruthless about content that doesn’t,’ with regular performance assessments ‘taking into account audience traffic’ to their content.[11]

In fact, this is merely the latest development in a much longer trend. As far back as 1955, the then Daily Herald (now The S*n) used market research to review its content before deciding to ‘devote less space to political and industrial coverage and more to human interest stories, photos, and strip cartoons.’[12] This was identified as the best way to rebuild circulation and attract women who were ‘vital to the advertising department.’[13] Newspapers have also long been divided into sections to facilitate advertisers targeting of specific audiences.

Without time to check details, to go out into the world and make contacts, reporters are reduced to ‘churnalism,’ to the ‘passive processing of material which overwhelmingly tends to be supplied for them by outsiders, particularly wire agencies and PR.’[14] One source reported this month in the Press Gazette ‘painted a picture of a working life where journalists do little other than rejig the work of others, adding pictures, headlines and adjusting the copy to avoid falling foul of copyright laws.’[15] A survey in 2015 found a large majority believe time for researching stories has decreased and the influence of profit-making pressures, PR activity, and advertising considerations has strengthened.[16] An ironic consequence of this is that at least one national newspaper website is haemorrhaging its graduate trainees – to PR and marketing roles. 

Writers such as John Stauber & Sheldon Rampton and Jeff & Marie Blyskal have attested over the past thirty years to a similar picture in the US with genuinely independent journalism gutted as a handful a mega corporations have swallowed thousands of titles. Today, ninety percent of US media companies are owned by six corporations.[17] Thousands of local  newspapers have been asset-stripped until only small, demoralised workforces remain; incapable of investigative journalism. Instead, ‘news’papers become merely avenues for marketing material, celebrity gossip, and anything else thought to increase circulation and, therefore, the available acreage of  ‘brain space.’[18] As PR Week recently said of the US scene, hacks ‘cover larger beats, produce more stories, and generate more page views than ever before.’[19]

The increase in the media’s reliance of PR material is deeply concerning given that it began from an already high base. One British study in 2006 found that almost twenty percent of newspaper stories and seventeen percent of broadcast stories in their sample were ‘verifiably derived mainly or wholly from PR material or activity.’[20] In a further eleven percent of press, and fourteen percent of broadcast stories, PR had an ‘agenda setting role’. Interestingly, for broadcast media, stories presented by news anchors alone tended to be sourced ‘mainly or wholly’ from PR material. Making journalists reliant on PR material means that PR sets the agenda. Financial Times journalist and Director of Journalism at Reuters Oxford International Institute for Journalism John Lloyd concurs,

The normal journalistic approach to PRs i.e. dogs and lampposts is grossly self-serving from the point of view of journalists. It glosses over, ignores or even denies the fact that much of current journalism both broadcast and press is public relations in the sense that stories, ideas, features and interviews are either suggested, or in the extreme actually written by public relations people. Until that becomes open and debated between PR people and journalists, we will continue to have this artificially wide gulf where journalists pose as fearless seekers of truth and PRs are slimy creatures trying to put one over on us. It is not remotely like that.[21]

And PR isn’t just about promoting stories, it’s also about suppressing them. PR agencies can threaten to cut off the drip feed of stories on which harried journalists are dependent or they can offer ‘better’ stories in exchange for silence. Or they use stronger measures, as when Ketchum put pressure on US TV stations not to promote David Steinman’s Diet for a Poisoned Planet.

Ketchum obtained details of the book tour and TV and radio appearances that Steinman had planned. They called each media outlet and hassled them to drop the interview or to allow an industry spokesman on the show to present a balanced case. Through the American Council on Science and Health, an industry front group and client of Ketchum, they lobbied the US government to work against the book. Dr William Marcus, a senior science advisor for the Environmental Protection Agency, who had written the book’s foreword was pressured to withdraw it. He refused and was later fired from the EPA.[22]

It’s perhaps unreasonable to expect the corporate press to hold PR to account. They are, after all, merely subdivisions of the same business architecture, both intended to make a profit and dependent on the corporate capitalist structure to exist. PR is concerned with selling a product, the corporate media is concerned with selling an audience to advertisers. But there are still decent journalists trying to work within the corporate structure whose ability to do what should be their job is undercut by every new round of ‘rationalisation.’

The more the press is denuded of its muscle the more ‘source-based’ journalism -printing what people want you to know – will consume investigative journalism -printing what people don’t want you to know. And news, as Randolph Hearst said, ‘is what someone does not want you to print – the rest is advertising.’

_______________

Notes

[1] Figures sourced from The Holmes Report “Global Top 250 PR Agency Ranking 2016,” available at https://www.holmesreport.com/ranking-and-data/global-communications-report/2016-pr-agency-rankings/top-250 Note that six firms are listed as Burson Marsteller and MSL Group were joint fifth.

[2] Scott M. Cutlip (1994) “The Unseen Power: Public Relations. A History,” p. xii.

[3] US Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics   https://www.bls.gov/oes/#data

[4] Office for National Statistics (August 2016) “EMP04: Employment by occupation,” available at https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/datasets/employmentbyoccupationemp04

[5] Unknown Author (2011) “Over 60 per cent of journalists think PR agencies cannot be trusted,” in PR Moment, available at

http://www.prmoment.com/category/pr-research/over-60-per-cent-of-journalists-think-pr-agencies-cannot-be-trusted

[6] Peter Himler “The Journalist And The PR Pro: A Broken Marriage?” Forbes 14th March 2014, available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/peterhimler/2013/03/14/the-journalist-the-pr-pro-a-broken-marriage/#51da87a33a41

[7] Roy Greenslade “More PRs and fewer journalists threatens democracy,” The Guardian Online Thursday 4 October 2012 available at https://www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2012/oct/04/marketingandpr-pressandpublishing

[8] Nick Davies (2008) “Flat Earth News,” p. 167.

[9] The shift from print to online readers, along with software such as  Chartbeat, NewsWhip, and Parse.ly, generates huge amounts of data on what is read and shared and by whom. This information is increasingly being used to prioritise stories (Neil Thurman, Alessio Cornia, and Jessica Kunert (2016) “Journalists in the UK” Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, p. 36 available at https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/Journalists%20in%20the%20UK.pdf )

[10] Thurman et. al. (2016) p. 4.

[11] Dominic Ponsford “Journalists to be given personal online audience growth targets after job cuts at Trinity Mirror Midlands” Press Gazette 9th June 2015, available at http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/journalists-be-given-personal-online-audience-growth-targets-after-job-cuts-trinity-mirror-midlands/

[12] James Curran and June Seaton (2010) “Power Without Responsibility. Press, Broadcasting and the Internet in Britain,” p. 85.

[13] ‘Daily Herald reader interest surveys recommendations,’ p. 8 quoted in Curran and Seaton (2010), p. 85.

[14] Davies (2008) p.73.

[15] Dominic Ponsford “Source: ‘Ripping culture’ at national newspaper website prompts most graduate trainees to leave journalism for PR,” Press Gazette, 3rd August 2017, available at http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/source-ripping-culture-at-national-newspaper-website-prompts-most-graduate-trainees-to-leave-journalism-for-pr/

[16] Thurman et. al. (2016) p. 7.

[17] See John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton (1995) “Toxic Sludge is Good for You!” or Jeff and Marie Blyskal (1987) “PR: How the Public Relations Industry Writes the News”. See also Michael Corcoran “Democracy in Peril: Twenty Years of Media Consolidation Under the Telecommunications Act,” Truthout 11th February 2016 available at http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/34789-democracy-in-peril-twenty-years-of-media-consolidation-under-the-telecommunications-act

[18] Patrick LeLay, the head of the French media giant, TF1, described the purpose of his company thus ‘There are many ways of talking about television. But from a business perspective, let’s be realistic: fundamentally speaking, the job of TF1 is to help Coca-Cola to sell its product … If an advertising message is to register, the viewer’s brain needs to be made available.’ The same reasoning applies to print media.

[19] Dylan Tweney (2017) “What Responsibility Does PR Have to the Dying Media?” PR Week, 28th February 2017, available at http://www.prweek.com/article/1425774/responsibility-does-pr-dying-media

[20] Justin Lewis, Andrew Williams Bob Franklin (2008): A Compromised Fourth Estate?, Journalism Studies, 9:1, 1-20.

[21] Quoted in Lewis et al. (2008).

[22] Corporate Watch “Public relations and lobbying industry an overview,” April 2003, available at https://corporatewatch.org/content/corporate-watch-pr-industry-pr-and-media

 

 

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One thought on “The Timorous Watchdog

  1. Pingback: Let Truth and Falsehood Grapple | David Traynier

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