Public Relations: the Masters Now

After a century when public relations needed journalism - because journalists meant access to the media - the internet and especially social media have now freed the PR trade from this subservience, says the blurb for 'Public Relations: the Masters Now', a recent event at the Royal College of Art.

What is striking about the title, and the book discussed at the event, by John Lloyd and Laura Toogood - ‘Journalism and PR: News Media and Public Relations in the Digital Age’ - is that its main author, John Lloyd, has been, and is, a prominent national journalist, for 40 years, mostly on the FT.

Many journos of his generation regard journalism as occupying the moral high ground and do not mention PR in the same breath, let alone compare them objectively in a book.

I first heard of the project six months ago when its working title was 'Hacks and Flacks'.

John had interviewed a score of leading PR lights from industry leaders and academia on both sides of the Atlantic, and absorbed information that amounted to a big story: the old war between the two trades was over – won by public relations, which has triumphed in the digital age.

While this may be a statement of the obvious to many millennials in PR, it is also recognition that the status quo can, and has, changed.

In fact, for many of us who have been both hacks and flacks over a few decades, or whose partners and best friends are one or both, the long-awaited upgrade of PR’s reputation is welcome.

We all know that neither trade exists without the other.

But according them relative equality, where the old concepts of PR as spin and economy with the truth are replaced with evidence of PR at the top corporate table advising on strategy and digital policy, and managing content creation, has been a long time coming.

The reputation of PR, however, reflects its workers.

In academia and old-school journalism it is still regarded as whiffy, sometimes with good reason.

PR is its own worst enemy, with the mail box of every listed journalist coping with a daily deluge of shockingly bad press releases and invites, the result of PRs using lists that are utterly inappropriate and a waste of time.

Though at this point in the discussion it is worth remembering Leveson, and that several journalists are in court or jail as we speak.

So, while both industries have their Achilles’ heels, the dividing line between the two at their best is blurred, and likely to become ever more so.

Authors of on-line content can be either.

But a press release should read exactly the same as a news story for the media it targets.

Until PR makes sure its staff all write and research at least to professional journalism standards, it still risks relegation by those who are the target of the press release plague.  

Trish Evans is the course leader for BA Public Relations and Advertising at University of Westminster

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