Shake hands, journos and PRs; we're in the same business

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The Independent Online

In these dark days for the economy, journalists are doing more than their share of hand-wringing. Among their reasons for gloom is public relations' increasing domination of the news media. Many journalists moan about being forced to produce ever more content with scant resources, but what they have to say about their difficulties remains long on angst and short on solutions.

In comparison, PR is in good health but its voice is seldom heard. Journalists seem happy to revile it in simplistic terms, even as they or their colleagues prepare to slink away to better-paid PR jobs. They rarely bother to study a profession they see as their adversary, yet they have the last word over what is published and broadcast about PR.

Over the past century, PR has grown from negligible beginnings into an industry which, in both the United States and the UK, now employs more people than journalism. The underlying reality is that, in a way that is seldom studied, almost all modern organisations – governmental, commercial or charitable – spend an increasing share of their resources on attempting to manage media coverage.

Despite occasional noises off from soi-disant PR moralists, sensible PR practitioners know that their job is to persuade people to act in the interests of their paymasters. Journalism's search for a purpose is much more fraught and agonised. Many journalists recoil from the notion that they work in an entertainment industry – more PR-generated "Freddie Starr Ate My Hamster" than fearless All the President's Men – but to a considerable extent they do.

Reporters are seldom as intrepid as they like to claim, and journalists rarely happen upon news. An honest list of ingredients in most news stories – and the recipes according to which they were prepared – would be an eye-opener. The reluctance to discuss this is only in small part about protecting sources. It is more akin to the unwillingness of magicians to reveal how they perform their tricks, and reflects an understandable reluctance to admit how much of the fare the media supply to their customers is delivered "oven-ready" by the PR industry.

Journalists cover the activities of charities and campaigning organisations without focusing on the fact that such activities are just another form of public relations. This form of PR gets a surprisingly uncritical hearing in the media. Indeed, many corporate PR people are now more fearful of the PR activities of the Greenpeaces of this world than they are of journalists.

Increasingly, big news stories are in reality PR battles fought out between rival organisations (and sometimes dissident PR within organisations: for example, the sniping between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's PR proxies). The media, bouncing between different PR sources, simply report and comment on the conflict. Journalists perform the not unimportant role of judges summing up at the end of the case: they summarise the evidence advanced by PR people and highlight its strengths and weaknesses.

Rather than recoiling in horror, critics should consider whether what has occurred is necessarily a bad thing. The debate will never be perfectly balanced – what debate is? – but neither was journalism ever able perfectly to report the world. PR lends voices to the different interests in society. Some journalists may choke, but perhaps the best hope for the media and for informed debate is more PR.

Simon Goldsworthy is senior lecturer in public communication at the University of Westminster and a former government press officer

'PR: A Persuasive Industry? Spin, Public Relations, and the Shaping of the Modern Media', by Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy, is published by Palgrave Macmillan (£25)