Peston's "bullshitters" attack was about more than just journalists versus PRs

I imagine there was a great deal of tea spat out last Friday when it was reported that BBC journalist Robert Peston had turned on PR people, all guns blazing, describing them as "professional bullshitters".

Robert Peston: Fears the influence of PR (GL Portrait / Alamy)
Robert Peston: Fears the influence of PR (GL Portrait / Alamy)

There was of course, a little more to the story. Peston made the comments as part of a much longer and thoughtful lecture – delivered to celebrate the late BBC foreign correspondent Charles Wheeler – in which he asked whether the type of journalism Wheeler exemplified had any future.

Threats, my old employer’s economics editor said, included the trend of allowing readers to dictate the editorial agenda (cue criticism of Buzzfeed, citing stories such as 'Bought My Cat a Bed In Ikea').

I’m a recent convert to Buzzfeed. In its defence, it has run stories on North Korea, the Gove/May row and the Newark by-election this week. Admittedly alongside my personal favourite, ’23 Animals Who Look Like Donuts’.

Peston also claimed cuts to editorial staff resulting from the media’s constrained resources were potentially giving "growing and potentially worrying power to the public relations industry".

It’s tempting to dismiss this view as the usual binary picture of "journalists are all impartial crusaders for the truth, therefore good" and "PRs are unprincipled and want to control stories, therefore evil".

Peston admittedly describes a world in which PR is the "enemy". He also describes the industry as having become "more professional". I was about to plead guilty, until he said it was in a "slightly chilling way".

He mentions that when at the FT, he told his staff they would be in "serious trouble if I heard them talking on the phone to a corporate PR rather than a chief executive or chairman".

Chief executives and chairmen, of course, would find it anathema to present their companies "in the best possible light", another charge he levels at PR professionals.  

But the old journalists vs PRs debate aside, I think Peston was articulating fears that behind the revolution taking place on social media, there may, in truth, be a generational change in the social order.

A new generation of citizens and consumers are exerting power and declining to be told what to think or what they should be interested in. I do not believe we have yet seen the full impact of this change which, like the Arab Spring, is not caused by social media. Social media are merely a tool in the hands of a changing public.

Journalists like Peston are reflecting on what this means to them. They’ve come to the party a little late, but they're very welcome. PR professionals have been worrying over this for years.

My friend and mentor Robert Phillips likes it when I pretend to be annoyed by the title of his forthcoming book Trust Me, PR is Dead. PR, he argues, "has abused and exhausted trust".

It is a "profession", he notes for which, "no professional qualifications are in fact required".

Round the world, PR professionals are worrying about the future. Learning about social media isn’t the answer. Increasing control over journalism isn’t either.

I don’t know the answer. Robert Peston doesn’t either. But he was right to ask the question.

Donald Steel is a specialist in reputation and crisis management and associate director at Johnston Associates Public Relations. He was also head of press and chief communications adviser for the BBC between 1999 and 2010.

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