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Friday, June 27, 2008

In the league of liars

Two recent unrelated developments in the American media world vis-à-vis public relations professionals were perhaps pointers to the need of a closer look and introspection into the relationship between public relations professionals and journalists in our part of the world too.
Harold Burson, the founder of the renowned public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, had recently reacted very sharply to a comment by a lawyer at the CBS television’s “Sunday Morning” show on June 8. In an ‘unflattering diatribe’ on the behaviour and characteristics of Public Relations professionals, the lawyer had reportedly said that public relations is nothing but communicating lies.
Harold has been practicing public relations for more than sixty years now. He is the founder of renowned public relations firm Burson and Marsteller which has branches in various parts of Asia Pacific, Europe, Middle East, Africa and Latin America. It had recently taken over Genesis Public Relations at Chennai. Harold’s internet blog is a must-read, almost like the daily newspaper, for many hard-core public relations professionals across the world.
CBS News Sunday Morning is, on the other hand, an immensely popular morning news magazine program in America. The programme hosted by Charles Osgood is broadcast on Sunday mornings on the CBS network. Sunday Morning premiered in 1979 and was originally hosted by Charles Kuralt until 1994.When a person in legal profession ends up saying public relations is all about communicating lies on such an acclaimed show, one tends to sit up and take notice unless, of course, one is not dead.
There has long been a “love-hate relationship” between journalists and public relations professionals. Journalists often call public relations professionals “liars” and public relations professionals call journalists “necessary evil” though rarely in earshot of one another. But the gloves came off last week after Chris Anderson, the executive editor of Wired magazine, chided public relations professionals who deluge him with e-mails with news releases “because they can’t be bothered to find out who on my staff, if anyone, might actually be interested in what they’re pitching.” Anderson, then, released the names of 304 unsolicited e-mail senders who had sent him press releases, with hopes of getting a few column centimetre of printed space, and stated that he had permanently blocked these senders. To their embarrassment, the names included several renowned and established public relations firms.
These developments put up two very disturbing but pertinent questions. First, do people in general and journalists in particular, really understand what public relations is all about? And second, is it not time that public relations professionals also give a deeper thought to the age old notion of judging efficiency of public relations by volume of printed space or air time that they mange to get for their respective organizations or clients?
What we, the people in public relations, actually do to earn our living? Ideally our job is to be the bridge between the public and the organization we serve. For this we practice something called media relations apparently trying to get journalist write – about our clients, our organizations, our products, thereby give publicity. What is the end purpose in media relations? It is to convey messages to targeted audiences to advance concerned organization’s goals, raise its profile, and uphold its reputation. In this process, journalists become a means to an end. They are only conduits or tools for information disseminations. In other words, the focus of media relations should be creating an ongoing dialogue between public relations people and journalists to have your organization or product discussed in a positive light, in public, through a publication or broadcast.
This can be achieved by creating a relationships based on trust with media people, and that is what we do. But before approaching towards their job, public relations people need to understand the customs, conventions and standard operating procedures relating to the media. Public relations people need to know how journalists operate and approach their job, which in turn will shape their attitude towards journalists and editors. If you distrust and dislike journalists, it will eventually show and affect your dealings with the media. If as public relations professional you lie to a journalist, he or she will eventually find out and your credibility will go down. That is not going to help in your pursuit in developing a relationship and going to make your job increasingly difficult.
I think that the media in general sees themselves as a ‘watchdog’ against big business and institutions. In an environment where the public is bombarded with information from so many sources journalists believe that they are maintaining a balance by consciously and aggressively searching for the bad news. They see themselves as devil’s advocates, standing guard for right and truth.
Harold wrote in his blog that facts are no more scarce, and news is no more reporting facts only, it is more of interpreting facts. We public relations people also present facts to the journalists, of course laced with our interpretations or present them the way we look at those facts. Journalists often may find what we present them with not conforming to their idea of facts. But, that is per say not lying. Harold is of the view that if people are misunderstanding the profession of public relations, it is because the public relations people had failed to explain to them what they do.
Another factor that is making our life increasing difficult is the tendency of CEOs and top management of judging our efficiency by numbers of news coverage we manage to corner. It is this tendency that is pushing more and more people in public relations to go all out with mindless bombardment of journalists with press releases blindly. We have so little time and resources and so hard pressed to show results that we are left with no other option to spam the mailbox of journalists with the hope that some will at least publish our press releases. The situation will drastically change if we can make people understand that good public relations is not judged by volume of media coverage but by quality of media coverage. If only we could make them understand public relations is not possible without performance and telling lie or suppressing facts is not at all going to help. I will not mind being put in the league of liars by a few as long as others understand what we do.

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