Come in Spinner: Exclusive! Shock! Horror! Probe reveals PR influence

The UTS-Crikey analysis of PR influence on the media raises an issue of profound significance – when will journalists realise that PR influence is insignificant compared to other factors impacting on the media?

Some years ago Wendy Bacon and I were guests on an ABC program talking about PR’s influence on the media. Wendy was making a point about how PR people manipulated journalists. While not denying that many tried to, I asked whether, if journalists were always being manipulated, that implied that they were stupid and lacking in critical capacities? I don’t remember her reply.

Essentially PR people use the media by leaning with the wind, adapting their offerings to the commercial, lifestyle and conventional wisdom of specific media outlets. (More on precisely how they do it next week.)

But as I frequently ask journalists: when has PR done more to pervert and distort media coverage than the actions of proprietors such as Northcliffe, Hearst, Beaverbrook, Packer, Murdoch and Berlusconi?

And it wasn’t PR people who downsized newsrooms and reduced journalists’ capacity to undertake independent research.

Equally much of the concern about PR is predicated on the assumption that the media still constitutes an idealised fourth estate model. Last year a panel of four journalists (including then crikey editor Jonathan Green) gave presentations at an RMIT Communicator of the Year breakfast. During question time I asked which country,  what time and which publication had epitomised this idealised fourth estate model. Again I don’t remember the answer. But it has always seemed to me that the fourth estate model is a means of training journalists into a Marxian false consciousness which allows them to operate in environments and workplaces which are far from the ideal without going mad.

One could also ask when PR people have done some of the things Nick Davies describes journalists doing in his great book Flat Earth News, although some PR people did ‘lean with the wind’ and exploit the stories he reports on.

PR is part of a wider problem in society – anticipated by Friedrich Engels in the mid-19th century – the commoditisation of everything. But that problem stems from the mix of spin, advertising, media hype, celebrity worship, consumerism, media becoming lifestyle industries, the information overload and similar trends. PR people also frequently, along with politicians and the media, add to the general dumbing down of community debate, the misunderstanding of risk and the fostering of a constant climate of fear.

As Nassim Nicholas Taleb asks in his book about outlier events, The Black Swan, “…why does reading the newspaper actually decrease (sic) your knowledge of the world?” There is a problem but the amount of PR-inspired content in the media is a symptom of that problem, not the cause.

Incidentally, I suspect there is a methodological problem with the UTS-crikey survey as its findings for PR-inspired material in the media is dramatically lower than previous estimates and the UTS-crikey estimates for the business pages and politics are way off the mark. It may be that that the method used, basing research on media releases and common quotes, captures only a small part of PR-media interaction.

RITUAL DECLARATION OF INTEREST: I put a proposal to crikey in 2008for an ongoing joint research, data base or website on commercialism and the media. The UTS has story has rev-vivified the discussion. I was a not very good journalist for some years and a (some others might say quite good) PR man for many more.