‘Churning’ Through PR’s Big Questions

A couple of high-profile incidents last week once again raised questions as to whether PR is, in effect, “controlling” the national media. Personally, I don’t buy that notion, but the facts do bear some soul-searching.

The week began with a new website, Churnalism.com, aimed at exposing how the British media falls prey to PR’s supposedly sinister efforts to promote client agendas at the expense of fact-based reporting. Essentially, you paste a press release into the site’s search engine and it provides a percentage of that release that appeared, verbatim, in the UK national media. PRWeek (UK) has full coverage and commentary.

Also last Monday, a scathing article in POLITICO reported that Kurt Bardella, deputy communications director for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), was leaking private e-mails from certain journalists to a New York Times reporter who is writing a book on Capitol Hill journalism. The hub-bub around that story quickly escalated, and Bardella was summarily fired (rightly so, IMO).

So what does all of this say about the current state of affairs in PR? A couple of thoughts:

  • We need to be very cognizant that PR is a highly visible industry that works with a variety of audiences — media, public, consumers, CEOs, etc. — some of whom have only a passing knowledge of the integral interactions and work we perform with the media, and the often symbiotic relationship that exists between PR and reporters. We need to better explain ourselves.
  • There is simply no excuse for disclosing to one set of reporters or bloggers the line of questioning and information being sought by another. That is a slippery slope toward a tremendous loss of credibility for PR.
  • Perhaps we have taken the concept of giving reporters every piece of information, images, data, etc. a little too far. After all, it’s not our job to report or analyze the news; that’s the realm of reporters and bloggers. And if we’re being accused by sites like Churnalism.com and others of corroborating in the deterioration of fact-based reporting, perhaps it’s time to consider what role, if any, we play.

I’m certainly not saying that’s the case. As I noted in a comment to the PRWeek op-ed, “PR professionals and journalists each play an important role in ensuring that the information conveyed to the public is both truthful and accurate, and is done with the public’s best interests in mind.”

PR’s role in advancing democratic societies is vital and shouldn’t be called into question simply because one website, or one isolated incident of a PR professional secretly giving away the store to competing journalists, has come to light.

But it does leave me feeling a little queasy at the moment; a thought has been running through my mind that maybe, just maybe, we’ve lost some of our core focus as the Wild West of digital and social media rapidly encapsulates all of our work.

Maybe this is all an aberration coming on the heels of a couple of isolated incidents. All the more reason, I suppose, for PR professionals to be as ethical as possible. Otherwise, we risk losing much of our credibility, along with diminishing the general media industry’s credibility, by putting our own moment in the sun ahead of others.

As the old industry adage goes, the PR guy or gal should never become part of the story.