Paul Holmes

If serving 'the public good' is the criterion, PR pros merit 'shield laws' more than reporters

If serving 'the public good' is the criterion, PR pros merit 'shield laws' more than reporters

Should a group of mid-level executives, most of whom work for large, for-profit corporations, be able to claim a special legal privilege for themselves on the grounds that what they do serves "the public good?"

Phrase the question that way, and I suspect most people - even most journalists - would answer with a resounding "no." But many of those same journalists, most of whom are mid-level executives working for multinational corporations (from GE to News Corp) are lobbying for a "shield law" that would protect them from government inquiries.

Under such shield laws, we could face a situation in which a GE employee toiling in the company's PR department would be forced to cooperate with a government investigation while another staffer - drawing an identical salary - in the company's NBC News division would be legally protected.

It seems to me that if the second of those individuals wants special rights that are not available to the first, he or she should face a heavy burden of proof that his or her works serves a broader public interest - and I don't believe most journalists in this country can come close to meeting that burden of proof.

The point is driven home by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who wrote recently, "If we journalists are to demand a legal privilege to protect our sources, we need to show that we serve the public good - which means covering genocide as seriously as we cover, say, Tom Cruise."

But how many reporters are engaged in work that serves the public good? Or, more to the point, work that makes a greater contribution to the public good than other mid-level executives in for-profit corporations. Is the contribution of an NBC News reporter to society measurably more beneficial than the contribution of someone within GE's desalination business, which produces drinkable water for nations where water is a

sparse commodity?

Does journalism provide more of a public service than PR? I'd argue that someone who truly wanted to make the world a better place - rather than stand on a soapbox - could do so more productively in a corporate PR department, helping companies understand and meet the expectations of the society in which they operate, rather than working for one of the big four networks.

But most journalists would deny coverage from shield laws not only to their corporate colleagues in other divisions or functions, but also to bloggers, most of whom work for themselves rather than for the likes of Jeff Immelt and Rupert Murdoch.

The reality is that reporters' noble self-image - upon which their claim for special treatment rests - is light years removed from the work most of them actually do.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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