Is there really a moral equivalence between journalists and PRs?

Few tears were shed in newspapers following the collapse of Bell Pottinger amid the scandal over its controversial South African activities.

After all, journalists don’t like public relations and all its works. At best, they are sceptical about the alleged benefits of PR. At worst, they are openly hostile.

This bitterness has a lengthy history, as I discovered on reading a slim volume, PR: The Fifth Estate, written in 1963 by Richard West, the celebrated foreign correspondent who died in 2015.

West’s account of what was already developing into a British PR “industry” was sober, even-handed and prescient: “The amount of public relations in this country has increased and will increase even more rapidly during the next few years”.

Some 45 years before Nick Davies argued, in Flat Earth News, that newspapers relied heavily on PR-prepared copy, West was already pointing to the growing dependence on PR “handouts and press releases” as starting points for “news stories”.

In that regard, he relies on claims made by Michael Frayn, then an Observer columnist, who had shown his disgust for PR by founding a lunch club called “the Society for the Discouragement of Public Relations”.

West, while clearly sympathetic in his conclusion to Frayn’s viewpoint, does explore the more positive role of PR as a helpmate to journalism. He recognised that reporters could benefit from factual information provided by PRs (or PROs – public relations officers – as they were generally known at the time).

But I was struck, given the Bell Pottinger episode, by one particular passage about the risks of British-based PRs undertaking “political public relations work for an overseas government or political party” which “sometimes embroil the PR firm in political controversy”.

He cites the case of a celebrated PRO of the era, Toby O’Brien, who cheerfully acted for the Spanish government led by General Franco in order to boost tourism (receiving a decoration for his trouble) and the neighbouring Portuguese government led by another dictator, António Salazar.

He drew the line at working for the South African government because he opposed apartheid. However, a rival firm led by Sydney Wynne was less concerned at being hired to support white minority rule in Africa, represented Sir Roy Welensky’s Central African Federation (Northern Rhodesia). The result, wrote West, was “much favourable comment in the newspapers” about the country.

O’Brien, like so many of his ilk, was a journalist before turning to PR. That move, noted West, was common. So common, in fact, that the National Union of Journalists set up a special “Press and PR” branch in 1957. It did nothing to prevent the antagonism between journalists and PRs.

There remains a deep-seated belief among reporters and editors that the public relations industry’s growing legions prevent them from getting at the truth.

Similarly, PRs believe that it is journalists who prevent the public from knowing the truth through the application of spin. This is an old battle with plenty of ironies and I have debated this topic many times down the years, including a celebrated occasion at Westminster University in 2008 at which Nick Davies and I contended that “the growth of PR was threatening the integrity of the press".

The main speaker against us was Baron Bell of Belgravia, formerly Tim Bell, co-founder of Saatchi and Saatchi who later co-founded and chaired Bell Pottinger until his resignation in August 2016.

Bell was scathing about journalists and the activity of journalism. And I’m sure he was gratified by the motion being voted down by a margin of almost three to one.

True, there was a preponderance of PRs among the 350-strong audience. But I couldn’t overlook the fact that several media academics also raised their hands against us.

It is sobering to reflect that journalists continue to suffer a poor public image. It reminded me of the time I invited Julia Hobsbawm, then heading a PR company, to give a lecture to my students at City, University of London. journalists and PRs.

I watched as the initial antipathy towards her among the students gradually dissolved, mainly because of the evidence she mounted in her argument that there is a moral equivalence between PRs and journalists. And, partially, I suspect, when she revealed the level of fees her firm charged for its services.

In the years since Julia spoke and that Westminster debate, the number of PRs employed across Britain has increased while the numbers of journalists have decreased. There are now thousands more of the former than the latter.

I cannot see that as anything other than worrying. This is not to condemn PR, or those who work in the wide field of public relations. Sensible journalists understand that the majority of PRs are helpful and truthful, and that we depend on each other.

But there cannot be dependence of any kind, no mutual benefits whatsoever, if the journalistic community goes on diminishing at its current rate.

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*