Opinion: Why all journalists should study public relations

By Ira Basen, J-Source Future of News editor

By Ira Basen, J-Source Future of News editor

“The relationship between PR and journalism is like that of the prostitute and the regular punter who relies on his “whore”, yet who is ashamed and often resentful of his dependence on this regular secret tryst.”

This rather provocative statement was written by Julia Hobsbawm, a leading British public relations practitioner and educator, in her book Where the Truth Lies: Trust and Morality in the Business of PR, Journalism and Communications.  The book is not easily available in North America, but it is worth looking for if you’re interested in the complicated and always evolving relationship between PR and journalism.

I put Hobsbawm’s statement on the front page of the syllabus for an elective course I occasionally teach in the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. I call the course “Journalism in the Age of Spin: Critical Perspectives on Public Relations and the Press.”

 I’ve been a journalist for almost thirty years.  I’ve never worked in PR, and don’t intend to.  But in my course I try to eschew the conventional wisdom that holds that journalism and PR are antithetical.  Journalists are independent seekers of truth.  PR practitioners are masters of spin whose loyalty lies not in the pursuit of truth, or in “serving the public interest” as the Canadian Public Relations Society’s definition of PR declares, but with the narrow interests of their clients/employers.  PR is about advocacy, journalism is about relentlessly pursuing the truth, no matter whose ox might be gored along the way.

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I think both these pieces of conventional wisdom are off the mark.  In my view, Hobsbawm’s analysis does a better job describing the current tortured relationship between PR and journalism than the white hat/black hat duality that many journalists, and journalism schools, like to promulgate.  It deals with the world as it actually is, not as we wish it was.

Most journalism schools don’t like to talk to their students about public relations.  They teach them nothing about PR history, theory, ethics (yes, there is such a thing) and practice.  It’s as if they believe that by teaching them about the “dark side” (a phrase I studiously avoid) they will somehow be made impure. I believe this does a real disservice to our students for several reasons.

The first, and most obvious, is that most of them will wind up working in some form of PR after they graduate.  According to the 2006 census, there were 13,320 people in Canada working as journalists, and 36,905 working in PR and communications.  Expect that gap to grow when the 2011 results are announced later this year.  If you were wondering where the jobs are for the thousands of journalism grads turned out by Canadian universities and colleges every year, now you know.

I’m not suggesting that journalism schools be teaching students how to write press releases or organize media events.  That’s what PR schools are for. Nor do I like jumbling everything together like Northwestern University has done with its Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications.   

The reason why I call my course “Critical Perspectives on Public Relations and the Press” is because I believe that we would all be better off if all journalism students, whether they wind up doing journalism or not, spend some time thinking critically about this indispensible and frequently misunderstood relationship.

I am always surprised to discover journalists who have no idea what “earned media” is, even though they encounter it every single day.  Or don’t understand how the people they are interviewing use techniques like “block and bridge” to stay on their message track.  Or have never heard of Edward Bernays or Ivy Lee, two of the founding fathers of PR, who basically invented all of the PR tools that journalists encounter in their work.  Or who simply dismiss the idea of PR ethics as an oxymoron instead of looking critically at how PR ethics and journalism ethics actually compare.

And it is much easier to blame evil spin doctors for trying to manipulate the news agenda than to take a critical look at how journalists play into their hands as we are turned into enablers of spin rather than warriors against it. 

Because while journalists spend almost no time learning how PR works, PR people spend lots of time studying what journalists do, and how we think.  As a result, they know us better than we know them, and in many ways, they know us better than we know ourselves.  And that’s a problem.

They know, for example, that we are in a very competitive business, and we love to get “scoops”.  And they are only too happy to oblige us by delivering those scoops when it suits their interests.  But what about the public’s interest?

Lately, for example, both our national TV networks have been filling their newscasts with breathless, anonymously sourced stories about terrorist threats on trains and elsewhere. Almost every night we hear those magic words… “sources tell CBC/CTV News.”     

Well, who are these sources, and why are they being so helpful? 

Could they be the same anonymous intelligence sources that told then National Post reporter Robert Fife that they were “100 per cent sure” that a Syrian-born Canadian named Maher Arar had trained at an Al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan.  That’s what Fife reported in a front page story on December 30, 2003.  But it wasn’t true.

And Fife wasn’t alone.  Read pages 255 to 263 of Justice Dennis O’Connor’s report on Arar to remind yourself how intelligence sources leaked erroneous information to the Canadian media in order to destroy Arar’s credibility and justify their own actions. 

Have our intelligence sources now seen the error of their ways?  Are they now committed to the public’s right to know, or are they still operating in their own self-interest with the complicity of the press?    

These are questions worth exploring, and in my class I try to get students to think about why you sometimes do have to look a gift horse in the mouth and ask questions about your sources such as “why are they telling me this?”

And in that classroom we may well have both the leakers of tomorrow, and the future recipients of those leaks. 

So my hope is that as journalism educators we start to take a more mature and reality-based look at the relationship between PR and the press, and recognize that whichever area our students wind up working in, they will benefit from knowing more about the other half.  And our readers, viewers and listeners will ultimately benefit as well.   

Ira Basen is a long-time CBC Radio producer.  He currently teaches at Ryerson, the University of Toronto, and in the Masters of Communications Management program at McMaster, where he teaches communications ethics.  He was the 2012 CanWest Global Fellow in Media at Western University.