EDITORIAL: Don't downgrade media relations

The relationship between the media and PR has always been an ambivalent one. The industries have grown up together and, in the 24/7 media environment outlined in this week's PRWeek/Weber Shandwick survey, are increasingly interdependent. But the media's portrayal of PR continues to sour.

At one extreme PROs are seen as a malign and powerful influence - media manipulators or 'spinners'. Only last week, leading City editors blamed 'sophisticated' City PROs for fogging the issues around the Enron, Andersen and Allied Irish Bank debacles, making references to an unhealthily close relationship between financial PROs and correspondents.

At the other end of the spectrum, 'PR girls' - as they are invariably dubbed - are portrayed as simple party organisers.

Spinners or lightweights: neither media caricature is remotely representative of the rich and complex range of disciplines grouped under the umbrella of public relations. However, this unsavoury view of the industry was reinforced by a specially commissioned Echo Research analysis of media coverage of PR, unveiled at PRWeek's PR and the Media conference last week, and backed up by a range of editors and broadcasters.

Speakers ranging from Amanda Platell to the BBC's Nicholas Jones and Sky News's Michael Wilson voiced the view that political PR has contaminated the broader perception of the industry as a whole.

The issue this raises for the industry is how exactly the broad swathe of practitioners can differentiate themselves from the spinners at Westminster and Whitehall and prove that this is an industry more spinned against than spinning.

One of the ironies is that even the senior journalists speaking at the conference apparently recognise the dichotomy between the portrayal and their daily experience of the reality of PR.

As PR has moved more centre-stage and PROs' corporate status has been enhanced, consultants and corporate comms directors have increasingly concentrated on corporate strategy - and media relations has been delegated downwards.

Of course, some of the most brilliant minds in the business still phone their contacts on a regular basis but, as the senior journalists at last week's conference confirmed, inexperienced young executives are being asked to field media enquiries with insufficient information or access.

Though not the root cause of the problem, this trend can only serve to undermine the credibility of the industry. It is also grossly unfair on new entrants to the PR industry.

Every time a PR practitioner talks to the media, they have the opportunity to dispel the misconceptions about the business. Media relations is the frontline of PR and must remain a senior function.

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