PR and the media: The trust factor - In search of the truth

As the updated edition of Where the Truth Lies hits bookshelves, Cathy Bussey looks at three excerpts that discuss how trust in PR and journalism is changing the media landscape.

Julia Hobsbawm
Julia Hobsbawm

It has been suggested in recent years that PR and journalism are moving closer to one another. The relationship that was once at best one of sparring partners and, at worst, one of mutual loathing, has changed as the media have evolved.

As Nick Davies noted in his controversial book Flat Earth News, the age of 24/7 news coupled with deteriorating newsrooms as media outlets struggle to survive has seen journalists turn to PR professionals with a greater need than ever before. At the same time, huge numbers of journalists are making the switch to PR, whether through desire or necessity, as newsroom budgets are slashed and the PR industry continues to go from strength to strength. Davies noted in a speech in 2007 at the London School of Economics: 'At some point in the last decade the number of PR people fin-ally exceeded the number of journalists.'

What does this situation mean in relation to truth?

Through Flat Earth News, Davies has had his say on the situation. He believes the implications are increasing levels of distortion and falsehood in the media.

He also touched on the subject of truth in an interview with PRWeek, saying: 'Most PR activity is not dishonest. Most of it is true, but it deals in truths that are selected to show the client in a good light.' But there are alternative viewpoints to Davies' and many are summed up in the revised edition of Where the Truth Lies, published this week. It is a collection of essays by eminent journalists, PR professionals and politicians, edited by Julia Hobsbawm, founder of Editorial Intelligence and PR consultant. The first edition was published in 2006 and Hobsbawm says so much has changed in the past four years that it was time to revisit and update the themes the book discusses.

'The media have exploded in the past four years,' she says. 'When I wrote my introduction to the second edition, I found myself writing about Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, which had not been relevant four years ago. When the book was first published, the focus was on the special relationship between PR and journalism.

But I realised that something has shifted. Rather than worrying about each other, journalists and PR professionals must be concerned with the public, and the public role in defining where the truth lies.'

She adds: 'People are much more aware of how difficult it is to pin truth down. Truth is what matters, whether it is being told by a journalist, a PR person or a member of the public.'

EXCERPT 1

Fact-mongering Online

by Emily Bell, Formerly editor-in-chief of Guardian Unlimited and a member of the faculty at Colombia University's Graduate School of Journalism

It was the case in the very early days of news websites that one could rely on the 'not wrong for long' motto to keep you out of trouble - make an error, take it down quickly and your relatively small audience would be none the wiser.

But as the web has expanded, as search tools such as Google have proliferated and when experts can call in all stories they are interested in to their own news wires via RSS readers, the transparency and the challengeability of your reporting becomes ever more open.

For newspapers in particular this dev-elopment is highly unsettling. Think of the national daily newspapers in the UK - 11 titles selling more than 12 million copies a day all told, each with its particular angle on the news. Each community around that newspaper might 'trust' the paper's brand. For instance, the Daily Mail has a strong community and a large readership that trusts the paper implicitly.

But if stories are regularly qualified or knocked down by other sources, denied and re-edited by those perhaps who are even involved in the stories, then at some point the level at which a newspaper is trusted begins to falter.

Once the context into which you publish your stories alters from the 'safe' environment of your regular readership to the whole world, when your headlines appear on Google News alongside other contradictory stories, then it is far harder to defend the 'truth' of your reporting.

The New York Times' experience with the rogue reporter Jayson Blair, who filed copy which was fabricated or plagiarised, demonstrates that, in the world of high-pressure competitive news, the temptation to believe and run stories rather than interrogate their authenticity is overwhelming even for the most austere newspapers. So the inevitable rise of the web has not led to quite such a proliferation of falsehood as was originally expected; instead it has facilitated a more open examination of facts and journalistic presentation than was previously the case.

Bell here touches on another key theme running through the book - trust.

Edelman's annual trust barometer revealed that this year, for the first time, trust and transparency are as important to corporate reputation as the quality of products and services. The implications of this are massive for the PR industry, but there are separate issues for the media.

'The media, along with banks, were the least trusted sector,' Robert Phillips, CEO of Edelman, and a contributor to Where The Truth Lies, reminds us. 'There is a crisis of trust in the media, which is partly about the changing nature of media and journalism, and partly about the quality of output. Media in the UK hit a low point in 2007, with trust at just 19 per cent. That was the year of the telephone rigging scandals and the Hutton inquiry. It is now back up to 27 per cent.'

There is clearly some way to go for the media to rebuild trust but, as Bell and Simon Jenkins, former editor of The Times, argue, advances in technology may have in fact had a positive effect on the openness and transparency of the media.

EXCERPT 2

PR and the press: Two Big Guns

Simon Jenkins, Journalist, author and broadcaster, and former editor of The Times

There was no golden age of journalistic or editorial impartiality. Both are largely post-war inventions.

Indeed, if there were ever a golden age of responsible mass communications, it is today. Laws affecting privacy and confidence, and protocols on intrusion and right of reply are beyond anything in place in the 1960s or 1970s - even if some might want them more extensively applied. So too are such aids to accuracy as the worldwide web and freedom of information.

I do not see the internet as rendering journalism obsolete. It puts it on its mettle. It converts the editing process into a search engine and website designer, and places an additional premium on brand trust.

The obsession of publications such as The New York Times and The Guardian with self-correction shows a growing sense that the institutional newspaper is nowadays about trust or nothing at all. This has to be good news.

Hobsbawm is hopeful the new edition will add to the ongoing debate around PR, journalism, truth and trust. And as Julian Henry, director at 19 Entertainment, demonstrates below, the book is certain to provoke some debate around the key themes it addresses.

EXCERPT 3

Where the Truth Lies in Entertainment PR

Julian Henry, Head of comms, global, 19 Entertainment

To be a decent PR person, you need to have a relentlessly optimistic outlook on life and a record of obsessive behaviour. You can employ this personality trait strategically on the occasions when you might need to protect yourself from missiles that get lobbed in your direction by jealous rivals, or bitter former colleagues who have come to resent your success. You lie to yourself.

Telling porkies can become a necessity. You might be trying to contain something fragile, volatile and potentially damaging to a large number of innocent bystanders, namely your client's kingsize ego, which has the potential to explode without warning at any moment.

When living in a distorted world, it bec-omes necessary to twist the incoming data into something else, just to make sense of it. I know this seems warped and it will be no excuse for those who look at PR people as agents of the devil. But putting a positive gloss on things and looking at the world as an optimist is really a bare minimum requirement in the PR business.

Another familiar and easy lie in entertainment PR is the casual use of hyperbole. But it can seem legitimate to exaggerate a claim if a mentally deluded client is holding a gun to your head and threatening members of your staff.

I watched a TV show the other day and the presenter announced that 'Mariah Carey is the most successful female singer of all time'. I'd guess that this is impossible to prove, but I'm certain that Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Shirley Bassey, Chrissie Hynde, Sheena Easton, Madonna, Debbie Harry, Annie Lennox, Stevie Nix, Agnetha and Frida from Abba, those three girls from Bananarama, and many others might beg to differ.

Where do you think the truth lies in PR and the media? Email Cathy Bussey or log on to prweek.com and leave your comments

PRWEEK READER OFFER

To get your copy of Where the Truth Lies at the special price of £9.99 including free p&p (instead of rrp £12.99), please contact The Book Service on 01206 255777 and quote the reference 'Julia Hobsbawm'. Offer ends 31 December 2010.

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