I wrote this in university while studying communication. References are at the end. Enjoy!
Public relations verses ‘real’ journalism: An investigation into the influence that public relations has on media and its consequences for audiences
Suddenly, in the earlier parts of the 19th Century, newspapers were sold at a very low price and circulated through large audiences so owners could charge more for advertising. Companies began hiring professionals to place ads in papers and promote their interests. Since an objective voice is always more favourable than a biased one, companies could pay more to disguise marketing as real news and usually newspapers would not reveal that what was published was a paid advertisement. Thus, public relations (PR) was born (Foerstel, 2001).
Today, PR is a $10 billion industry and there are more public relations professionals than there are journalists in the U.S. (Foerstel, 2001). In fact, the practice of public relations has become so naturalized in our society it is not even questioned (Davis, 2002). Not only are entire companies devoted solely to the profession, there are organizations that specialize in servicing PR firms by sending out thousands of news releases to thousands of outlets each year (Foerstel, 2001).
This essay will investigate the influence public relations has on journalism and will question the quality of journalism that has resulted from a reliance on public relations. It will argue that public relations negatively affects society by controlling the media’s agenda (Franklin, 2004), causing it to produce biased information that contributes to maintaining power systems and dominant ideologies. Because of this, it will focus mainly on government public relations and draw on case studies where communication has been essential in achieving political goals. It will begin by describing how, and why, public relations is used, and will follow with a similar discussion on how and why the media receive, use and rely on public relations. Finally, it will course into an analysis of the effects this interaction has on the public.
Public relations is, no doubt, a powerful tool. The Thatcher Conservative government of the 1980s in Britain realized this not long after making attempts to defuse Labour Party communication strategies at the local level, where opposition had its stronghold. Thatcher imposed the Local Government Act 1986 to limit the practice of local public relations (Franklin, 2004). Clearly, the government realized that the media could make or break them. Public relations became both the tool and the target of attack, showing its key place as a transporter of goods from the government policy manufacturing house to the news production supplier, and finally to the consumers of information, the public.
The purpose of public relations is to “sell,” through both the paid-for and complimentary space it occupies in media. Public relations convinces people to buy “ideas, policies, political candidates, ideologies, and even foreign dictators” in addition to products and services (Foerstel, 2001). This selling is accomplished in a number of ways. The most common way is via the press release (Franklin, 2004). A more modern mutation of the press release is the video news release (VNR). These deceptive devices look just like real TV news stories and are run, often as-is, by news stations without authorship being contributed to the PR organization that made it (Foerstel, 2001). News releases are now also widely available through the Internet, which is becoming a major tool used by public relations professionals to harbour journalists (Franklin, 2004). In addition to press and video releases, Davis points out that “‘the survey,’ the ‘debate’, ‘the human interest story’, ‘the demonstration’, the ‘new research’, or ‘report’, ‘the charity action’, ‘the record breaker’ and another story on the ‘in-vogue theme’, are all PR devices for getting information into the press” (2002).
As noted above, government in Britain was extensive in their use of public relations, especially in targeting local media, to sell their ideas, policies and ideology. The government had set up a Central Office of Information (COI), which ran the Government News Network (GNN). The GNN had regional offices throughout the country to carry out public relations activities that would shed the best light on government (Franklin, 2004). The example of Britain shows how instrumental public relations can be to media, especially local complimentary weeklies.
The COI learned quickly of the vulnerability of local media and specialty publications that ran on low budgets. Because there are no journalists assigned to political (or any) beats like at larger papers, and because local journalists are always scrambling for time and work with low pay, they are more likely to depend on press releases and public relations to do their job. Weekly papers rarely have the resources to send reporters to government meetings where decisions are made, which makes them more reliant on the information fed to them through official government channels (Franklin, 2004). Franklin even makes the argument that journalists today are less interested in politics than those that preceded them. As a result, they are less likely to question the press releases issued to them or investigate the information further (Franklin, 2004).
Government in Britain capitalized on this weakness of local papers to maintain control of their image. As of a 1994 report, it spent £250 million to employ 1,000 PR workers, who then created 60,000 propaganda products a year, not to mention the 100,000 press releases they sent out on a yearly basis (IPR Local Government Group, qtd. in Franklin, 2004). Officials would argue these efforts were democratic, ensuring citizens education about the workings of government. However, the press controllers in Britain could only contradicted themselves when it came to accessing information. If journalists published a negative story about government, they would subsequently be banned from obtaining important, inside government information and documents that were central to writing anything pertaining to government. As a result, few journalists would put themselves in a position of being job-paralyzed and gave in to the “partial” news releases the government agencies preferred they stick by (Franklin, 2004). With this kind of strategy, public relations wins the day and journalism is left wrapped around the finger.
In China, propagandizing is not so subtle. After the Tiananmen Square incident, Chinese authorities seemingly did all they could to make sure media published the following truth: “Nobody was killed on Tiananmen Square,” those were just “rumors started by the western media” (Mccallum, 1990). Here too, government realized the power of mass communication and used media to lie to the world (Mccallum, 1990).
Journalists, however (at least in the Western world), would deny their vulnerability to public relations, and those in PR would agree, likely because it serves their interests to create a guiltless feeling towards using PR material. Journalists and public relations professionals argue that though there are news outlets all trying to get the same sources for their stories, there has also been a proliferation of organizations that use PR techniques in order to get a piece of the publicity pie, and in fact it is PR that seeks the attention of media, and not visa versa. Next, they argue that despite the financial influence PR firms can have on media by also supplying advertising revenue, journalists are the end decision makers of what material is produced and can do more damage to the clients of PR than PR practitioners can do to them (Davis, 2002). However, studies reveal that this is not the case and public relations is “becoming too powerful and, consequently, journalists are losing their conscious autonomy” (Davis, 2002).
This brings us to a discussion of the declining quality in journalism that has resulted from public relations. Although public relations has become fully integrated into the system of “news-gathering” by journalists, Davis argues that, “if handled appropriately, it becomes journalism rather than PR” (2002). However, PR is rarely dealt with this way. Because most papers are still businesses, they are concerned with bringing in a profit. Thus, cost cutting is practiced. This means that if using freebies from PR is cheaper than doing it yourself, then that becomes the new rule of thumb (Franklin, 2004). And, as mentioned above, now that journalists are always short on time, public relations is welcomed as a way of getting the job done for them. Sometimes, journalists will even ask for PR material from publicists (Foerstel, 2001). “Like an alcoholic who can’t believe he has a drinking problem, members of the press are too close to their own addiction to PR to realize there is anything wrong” (Blyskal and Blyskal qtd. in Foerstel, 2001)
Let’s take a look at how addictive, and yet damaging, VNRs can be. VNRs are entirely produced by PR companies and the news agencies that use them do not pay one dollar for the “costs of scripting, filming, and editing” (Foerstel, 2001). Campbell Morrison, writing for the Ryerson Journalism Review, describes the fault of using VNRs, some of which can cost up to US$16,000: “Instead of aspiring for “truth” and “objectivity”…They allow an organization to put its ideas or products on air without being subjected to the trained journalist’s tough or embarrassing questions, without critique and without analysis” (Morrison, 1986).
If you’re a journalist or editor looking for filler stories, you can also take a tour of News Canada’s Web site, where you’ll find an array of free stories from “Fashion and Beauty” to “Finance and Business” (News Canada, n.d.). The only problem to your ethics would be that these stories have been written, placed and paid for by public relations professionals and are simply advertisements disguised as real news. In 1986, the government of Canada used News Canada to release positive stories about the budget. The story was not attributed to anyone except News Canada, which requires an “NC” at the beginning of a story, and quoted only the finance minister (Holt, 1986). Today, journalists can find “News you can use copyright-free” in any medium from the News Canada Web site, and even register to have free MP3 or audio cassettes delivered to their doorstep free of charge (News Canada, n.d.).
The pressure is always on for journalists who need a ‘quick fix’ and when public relations can supply legitimate-sounding news in a flash, media is their number one ‘customer.’ According to Franklin, most local media in Britain publish news releases without even editing (2004). “When there is no countervailing or oppositional perspective to the government’s line…In this way the government’s view can become prominent and persuasive” (Franklin, 2004).
This was seen in the case of the Bush administration when it attempted to convince Americans based on false evidence that Iraq was making nuclear weapons. Barely any news media in the U.S. used fact-checking techniques to challenge the government in the months before the second Gulf War and no one questioned the Bush administration, even if real facts were known (Macarthur, 2003). “The American media failed the country badly,” says Columbia Journalism Review reporter, John Macarthur (2003). Clearly, in this case also, government used public relations to its advantage, realizing that spinning the truth was no longer necessary; they could simply lie and the media would gladly receive it as reliable, because, after all, it is public relations.
This brings us to an analysis of how public relations then affects citizens, consumers and voters. Because people generally do not know the process behind making a news story, they will not be able to tell the difference between quality journalism and biased marketing. They also do not realize the way news can shape their views. According to Mark Dowie of Mother Jones, PR is “an industry designed to alter perception, reshape reality and manufacture consent” (qtd. in Foerstel, 2001). Edward L. Bernays was an early propagandist and nephew of Sigmund Freud who wrote that particularly skilled people can “control the public mind” and “constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country” (Bernays qtd. in Foerstel, 2001).
Today, with almost half of news originating from public relations, citizens are less likely to realize that what they hear in the news is what someone wants them to hear. They do not realize that “for every story fed to the media, there is one being carefully kept out” (Davis, 2002). This type of news controlling can impede a citizen’s right to information that they need to make informed decisions and decide how they want to be ruled. Instead they are homogenized into a dominant ideology and believe that the way their world runs is normal, when it may not be. Kirk Hallahan points out that the day will not be a good one when people stop trusting the news because they question its credibility of sources and increasing use of PR (qtd. in Foerstel, 2001).
To conclude, we have seen that public relations is now on the rise and media are becoming more and more reliant on its products, especially as budgets become tight and journalists find themselves responsible to produce more quantity of stories, thus ignoring the quality of their output. Public relations is a cheap and fast alternative to doing the work themselves and clients of PR are glad to provide the service to journalists. This is because PR has proven to be effective in achieving goals, be they financial, political, or otherwise. Governments are no exception to the extensive use of propaganda in our news media. In fact, it is government that clearly capitalizes on the benefits of using PR, especially in local media, in order to gain support of its policies and actions and to stay in power. This can have negative consequences on the public that receives the unedited, unchallenged information from the media, whom they believe to hold the traditional values of objectivity and balance. However, instead of being able to make informed decisions by being exposed to a variety of viewpoints on a subject, people are easily swept into the realm of what the publicists want them to believe and what they prefer them not to know. Eventually, mishaps in administration that challenge the very foundations of the democracy in which Western people live go unquestioned (in most cases at least), and soon we are found living not in a democracy, but a dictatorship, with a government that practices the same tactics as controlling regimes abroad. And the worst part of it all is that no one notices the difference.
Davis, A. (2002). Public relations democracy: public relations, politics and the mass media in Britain (3, 26-32). New York: Manchester University Press.
Foerstel, H. (2001). From Watergate to Monicagate: ten controversies in modern journalism and media (pp. 37-59). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Franklin, B. (2004). Packaging politics: political communications in Britain’s media democracy (2nd ed.) (pp. 96-110). New York: Oxford University Press.
Holt, J. (1986). News on a Platter: A Toronto Agency is getting fat on clipbook journalism. Ryerson Review of Journalism. Retrieved March 11, 2006 from http://www.rrj.ca/issue/1986/winter/564/
Morrison, C. (1986). One Side to Every Story: The bad news is that more and more ‘good news’ really isn’t news at all. Ryerson Review of Journalism. Retrieved March 11, 2006 from http://www.rrj.ca/issue/1986/spring/25/
Mccallum, J. (1990). It Never Happened: In the Chinese media no one was killed in Tiananmen Square. Ryerson Review of Journalism. Retrieved April 4, 2006 from http://www.rrj.ca/issue/1990/spring/93/
Macarthur, J. (2003). The Lies We Bought: The Unchallenged “Evidence” for War. Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved April 4, 2006 from http://www.cjr.org/issues/2003/3/lies-macarthur.asp
News Canada. (n.d.). Home page, Print, Radio. Retrieved April 4, 2006 from http://www.newscanada