Public Relations and Journalism

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Watching CBS Sunday Morning, I was surprised by the presence of both truth and absurdity in an opinion piece by CBS Corporate Communications Executive VP Gil Schwartz. Schwartz was miffed by Andrew Cohen's opinion piece on the PR industry's response to Scott McClellan's book, taking umbrage specifically at Cohen's assertion that public relations is an inherently dishonest industry. While I agree with Cohen on that point, I would expect most public relations spinmasters to disagree and defend their side.

Schwartz's response -- despite an overabundance of 50 cent words where 10 cent words would do -- was carefully prepared and delivered with the sort of apparent conviction only a weathered PR professional can deliver. The absurdity came quickly, when he stated emphatically that PR companies only lie unkowingly, when their clients lie to them. Working in the media monitoring industry, I see on a daily basis how public relations companies -- in direct collusion with media outlets -- spin half-truths and lies of omission into marketing-cum-soundbite-news. The whole point of PR is to make the public feel good about your product or organization, and the worse the breaking news, the faster those PR wheels spin to turn the opinion back around, truth be damned.

What surpised me, though, was Schwartz's open acknowledgement of that collusion between so-called journalists and the PR industry. He boldly stated that PR and journalism are two sides of the same coin(!), and that when PR looks bad, journalism is going to look worse. I was agog that someone from either side of that equation would come out on a major media outlet make a direct reference to the very thing that's ruined journalism. Again, in the industry I work in, it's no secret that PR companies or the PR departments of companies contract companies such as DS Simon or Multivu to produce video news releases (aka, the fake news). They also produce press releases that are then distributed to media outlets by such companies as PRNewswire and Business Wire. Many of those outlets just print the press release as it is, but worse still are the AP and local-press "journalists" that rewrite the press releases and present them as legitimate stories, disguising the advertising as news. Scwartz was being completely honest in his comments on the symbiotic relationship between the PR industry and the news industry.

Of course, there's absurdity there, too. Schwartz sees nothing wrong with this relationship, and actually said that good PR leads to good journalism(!!). I was floored by that profoundly ridiculous assertion. If anything, the quality of the PR is inversely proportional to the quality of the journalism on any given story. Being a slick PR guy himself, I couldn't tell if Schwartz honestly believed that nonsense, or if that was just the product he was trying to sell. Maybe he's spent so much time in the PR industry that the truth of a statement has become a non-issue, as the only important consideration is the spin a statement provides. Regardless of how he honestly feels on the subject, he certainly understands that the fake reporters out there depend on the PR industry as much as the PR industry depends on them, and he basically threatened those fake journalists, telling them to play nice, or they'd ruin the game for everyone involved.

All told, it was an exciting few minutes of television. Schwartz pulled back the curtain, however briefly and possibly unintentionally, and exposed the unhealthy relationship between PR and journalism. He then basically said, "We got a good scam going! Don't screw this up!" Amazing.

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This page contains a single entry by Mike Bigtime published on June 22, 2008 11:49 AM.

We don't know what's going on, but we told you about it first! was the previous entry in this blog.

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