Rebuttal to “How PR Is Killing Journalism”: Why PR is Not the Enemy

Edward Bernays Quote

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On February 13, Eric Alterman, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, published an article titled “How P.R. Is Killing Journalism: And why that’s a problem even if you’re not a journalist.”

That mindset is severely damaging to the relationship between PR professionals and journalists that is essential in the current media ecosystem. Alterman’s article serves to perpetuate a “conflict” between PR and journalism that has no place in modern society.

To begin, Alterman quotes The New York Times’ 1896 statement that a journalist’s task is to provide impartial news. That’s very good in theory, although it certainly hasn’t been strictly adhered to since then. PR professionals might be partial to their clients’ affairs and primarily consider their points of view due to the nature of that relationship, but not so much that we believe that our clients are infallible. Our professional relationships with our clients do not cloud our judgement in regard to the quality of news we distribute about them. Objectivity is paramount to our work, as it is in journalism.

Like the Edward Bernays quote that Alterman uses (PR is the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses”), the perception that PR professionals come to work every day with the intent to pull the wool over journalists’ eyes by endorsing propaganda or looking for ways to spin a story is an antiquated one (though I won’t try to claim that every PR professional works with perfect integrity). The fact is, our goal is to represent our clients and share their news truthfully.

We do aim to write strategically and we do aim to influence. The beauty of our work is in the way we craft the evidence-based news we write about our clients. “Media manipulation” is not in our job description.

PR is an industry that, as Alterman notes, is fast-growing and flourishing. People are drawn to careers in public relations. Many PR professionals studied journalism and journalistic ethics in their education. Many have learned and still hold fast to the journalistic values that are sacrosanct to their work. The “conflict” between public relations and journalism is not caused by “a significant shift in power away from honest journalism,” as Alterman argues. It comes from outdated tension between industries that would do better to collaborate and work together with the common goal of giving the public accurate, useful information.

Public relations is not, as Alterman opines, “fronting as journalism.” Rather, PR professionals can be great assets to journalists. We do not imitate nor infiltrate journalism. We are an ally in the story telling process.

Alterman mentions a Pew study that examined news stories and traced the majority (84 percent) to their origins as PR pitches from the government, citizens or educational institutions. Alterman uses this to substantiate his claim that “we may be about to discover what it means to live with a constant information stream that is neither [fair nor balanced].”

Jeff Morosoff, director of Hofstra University’s graduate program in public relations and assistant professor of journalism, media studies and public relations, does not share Alterman’s views.

“It gives proof to what I’ve always said: Most news stories are generated by public relations pitches,” says Morosoff. “This means there is a greater burden on PR professionals to do their jobs well. If newsrooms are dwindling, then it’s the PR practitioner’s obligation to present content ethically, accurately and honestly.”

Ethical, accurate and honest. Three values that are profoundly important to PR and to journalism. They are imperative to our work and to the relationship between our given fields. By the same token, journalists should not blindly trust material they receive: They have a duty to verify all information they are presented with. Both PR and journalism share the responsibly of protecting and promoting the truth.

The first sentence of Alterman’s article highlights the opinion that public relations professionals “are the enemy.” This is not the attitude that should be preserved. Journalists and PR professionals must trust each other to work together harmoniously. The landscape of news gathering and sharing is constantly changing, and in reflection of this our respective industries should seek to cooperate rather than nurse conflict.

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