In 2004, I taught a course to graduating seniors at Miami University of Ohio. I had complete freedom to design the course contents, so I developed a curriculum on what I called the “symbiotic relationship” between the news media and the public relations industry. Both existed uneasily together, needing each other but wary of their respective motivations. One student asked me early on how I defined “public relations,” and it soon became evident that most definitions were inadequate or — no surprise — contained so much inherent spin as to be unreliable. So I made up my own definition: Public relations is the management of a point of view.
This definition and its many ramifications came to mind as I read a recent article in the respected Columbia Journalism Review (CSR), which serves a sort of nagging school marm role for professional journalists, academicians and students. Entitled True Enough, with the subhead “The Second Age of PR,” the article pretty much describes how the symbiotic press-PR relationship has dissolved, which is not a good thing.
The author, a former New York Times reporter, John Sullivan, details how public relations has grown exponentially as an industry even as journalism has constricted, and he goes on to paint a rather grim picture of “news” as being largely produced, amplified and distributed not by professional reporters and editors, but by anonymous PR types working to slant facts and disseminate interpretations that help their paying clients . . . in other words, managing their customers’ point of view, whether for the health care industry, the military, or higher education.
“The dangers are clear,” Sullivan writes. “As PR becomes ascendant, private and government interests become more able to generate, filter, distort, and dominate the public debate, and to do so without the public knowing it.”
Transparency prompts me to state that I have worked in PR for many years. I know how to slant facts and muster opinion to assist clients. But perhaps as a result of my journalism training, I have always felt a sense of detachment from the business. This has helped me see not just its inherent flaw (PR is based not on transparent, open communication, but on obfuscation, no matter how gently rendered) but also the havoc that a robust PR industry is now causing in our society.
The CSR cites numerous examples of how PR has affected — and not for the better. Two that come under detailed scrutiny by Sullivan are how the public’s understanding of health care costs and solutions has been misdirected by skillful (and hidden) public relations efforts, and how the military’s role in promoting huge and excessive government spending on weapons and missions has resulted in an arms budget out of all proportion to actual need. These “message force multipliers” are often retired officers who are coached to come across as sincerely concerned to always promote the idea that without more military spending, our national security is at grave risk. Sullivan quotes a former corporate PR executive who describes how in today’s environment, PR works its magic behind-the-scenes, making it difficult for the average reader or listener to know the source of the information being received.
The health care industry, for one, has mastered the art of presenting sources who appear to be informed, reasonable and objective, but who are scripted to slant content against health care reform. “You really want someone that seems to be an ordinary person,” the ex-corporate PR executive, Wendell Potter, is quoted as saying. “That gives you credibility and the perception that the public is on your side.”
We are somewhat inured to this message management. Local TV news runs PR-produced video stories all the time, in part because many broadcasters have shrunk their news operations. Spin is also virtually synonymous with politics these days. Ask yourself when was the last time you saw an elected official say anything that wasn’t pre-planned. But as Sullivan makes clear, the erosion of public trust is a steep price we are all paying for this epidemic of resolute glibness. Especially since professional journalism appears increasingly unable to stem the tide with content that is carefully researched, edited and presented in a way that is accurate, reliable and balanced.
With no one minding the gates to prevent rumor, fraud and dishonest content from becoming the new normal of communications, who are the gatekeepers in society today, Sullivan asks. Good question.