One of the great ironies of our time is that public relations personnel and press secretaries seem unable to resist the need to critique the work of journalists. The issue in this is not so much that many media critics have never practiced journalism. Many of the harshest media critics are in fact the complete antithesis of what journalists do.
Problems arise when public relations people seek to appear in the same light as journalists, not so much because they want to hold themselves to a higher standard but because they want to gain a semblance of moral authority. After all, the appearance of trustworthiness is an essential component of building brand (or party) loyalty.
The difficulty with combining the role of a journalist and public relations officer—or press secretary—is that the roles are diametrically opposed. And in the shedding of principles, it is obvious that something must give.
Says David Berkman, a former professor at the University of Wisconsin: “The purpose of journalism is to ferret out the truth. The purpose of PR is to protect your client. On the occasions where truth and the client’s cause look good, truth can never win when it conflicts with the client’s interests.”
The majority must sing for their supper. But it is disingenuous for image polishers to claim moral authority over someone whose ultimate goal is to air the truth regardless.
I am also wary of journalists who seek to ingratiate themselves in the formal political machinery. Even for editorial writers and columnists there can be a slippery slope, from enlightened, refreshing opinion to partisan, predictable bias.
Bias and opinion aren’t interchangeable. Bias refers to preconceived, rigid views that are highly predictable. Opinions are reactive views that come as a result of analysis. A bias does not necessarily require evidence since it is a priori; it is predictable.
When a press secretary or public relations officer harbors pretensions of being a journalist there’s a problem because he or she will inherently be biased. A PR person is expected to be biased. Thus, any journalistic effort such person puts forth will at least appear tainted, even if an effort is made to cover his or her tracks. Not that the effort is even made here.
When public relations people try to fit their agenda into the guise of journalism they often fall back on straw-man arguments and other modes of prevarication. Furthermore, these people end up assuming everyone else has an agenda. There is constant swirling, innuendo, spin. Somebody always wants to overthrow the government; or someone is ghost-writing an entire newspaper.
An issue of government mismanagement somehow transforms into a debate over whether past administration has behaved in similar fashion. Politicians file frivolous lawsuits, not so much to bludgeon their opponents but because they have suddenly acquired a chivalrous, exalted view of politics.
We then end up with situations where completely contradictory and possibly unethical behavior is swept away, not so much by placing a wall between the personal and professional life but by artificially creating a multiplicity of roles that do not necessarily obscure the true person as they do the true issues.
PR people are simply doing their job. However, they should never forget what their job entails!