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Ian Burrell: As corporate PR plunges into digital and social media, does it still need the traditional press?

  • @iburrell

It’s six years since Nick Davies came up with the term “churnalism” and denounced the cosy relationship of the news media and the public relations industry in his book Flat Earth News.

Davies, backed by analysis from Cardiff University, detected alarming similarities between selected news stories and press releases, which in some cases had been published almost verbatim by the Fourth Estate. “I work in a corrupted profession,” complained the author.

Since then, through his work in The Guardian, Davies has led the way in exposing Fleet Street phone hacking. But neither that scandal, nor the publication of Flat Earth News, has strengthened journalism in terms of its relationship with PR. Churnalism may not have been the worst of it.

When Davies was researching his book, PRs were focused on permeating the messages of clients through press and television, what is known as “earned media”. Today our information culture has been so transformed by social media and rapid advances in mobile technology that PR strategy is often to bypass traditional news outlets by self-generating content that is delivered directly to the public.

Rather than seeking the approval of journalists, the PR industry and its clients would rather reduce the press to the margins.

The relationship between journalism and PR is changing so rapidly it is the subject of research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, based at Oxford university. “You are moving away from the news and features being encased in the form of a newspaper or a television channel into a more varied diet of stuff which is produced by large companies,” says John Lloyd, contributing editor to the Financial Times and the institute’s director of journalism.

While budgets in news organisations are tighter than ever, big corporations – especially in finance and law – have the cash to invest in their own rich communications. The website of a big law firm such as Mishcon de Reya is full of media content; a TV channel and blogs on fashion and lifestyle (Lawfully Chic) and business (Business Shapers) produced by professional writers.

The law firm’s director of business development Elliot Moss presents Jazz Shapers, a weekly radio show on Jazz FM in which he interviews entrepreneurs such as Luke Johnson and Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet. The show, which is paid for by Mishcon and includes a legal interlude with a Mishcon lawyer, has broadened perceptions about the services the law firm offers.

The big investment banks such as Morgan Stanley fill their websites with news, features and analysis. “It’s not much different from the kind of financial news you get on Bloomberg or MSNBC or Sky or the BBC, it’s interviews with CEOs and chairmen and the financial specialists,” admits Lloyd.

The business of content marketing has been transformed by social media. The territory is being fought over by established publishers such as Redwood, Cedar and John Brown and the expanding PR sector.

PR company Weber Shandwick, for example, has its own content team called Creation. Its mission states: “No longer can we expect to tell a story to a middle-man and assume it will percolate through to our desired end audience in the right way. We are no longer communicators of other people’s content… we are content creators that tell other people’s stories.”

Weber Shandwick helped Unilever create The Adrenalist extreme sports channel as a way of promoting its deodorant brands. Red Bull has a similar brand strategy.

Fast-growing online platforms such as the list-based website Buzzfeed encourage “native advertising” where a company or its PR agency produces content that feels like editorial. Buzzfeed charges the company according to the number of page impressions it generates.

This avalanche of professionally-produced comment, analysis and feature material posing as editorial must mean that news “churnalism” has negligible value.

Most news sites are still fixated on mass traffic and have an insatiable appetite for material. But newspaper websites will find it harder to attract traffic if companies and PRs turn their backs on the press.

Many journalists would say the relationship with PR should always be adversarial and that a greater distance is healthy. And it can be argued that 2013 was a year when the press demonstrated its ability to hold those in power to account with stories about National Security Agency snooping (The Guardian), blue chip hacking and blagging (The Independent) and untouchable crime lords (The Sunday Times).

None of these stories, as far as I’m aware, were aided by the contribution of PRs. The question is whether the public is sufficiently interested in real journalism to support sustainable business models, or whether reporters will need in future to depend on philanthropy.

The fear of religion and free speech

The tussle between the BBC and Tim Berners-Lee over the web founder’s request as guest editor of Today to have an atheist Thought for the Day has put the spotlight on religious tolerance and free speech.

Index on Censorship has identified this as a battleground for 2014. In some countries those who practise minority faiths are unable to discuss them without risking discrimination or even death. In the UK there is another problem. Those in communications – from writers to cartoonists to stand-up comedians – censor themselves for fear of causing offence.

Comedian Stewart Lee no longer feels able to “experiment with certain types of content any more” on television, saving such material for live shows and DVDs. Lee tells Samira Ahmed in an article for Index that: “There is a culture of fear generally now in broadcasting. No one knows what they are allowed to do.”

An ad, but not just at Christmas

As of last Friday, the John Lewis Christmas ad had achieved 11,930,864 views on YouTube alone, more than the most-watched seasonal television show Mrs Brown’s Boys (which pulled 11.52 million on Christmas Day and  on catch-up in the  following week).

John Lewis then announced a 7.2 per cent sales jump to £734m in takings over the Christmas period.

Clearly the two are related. Ad agency adam&eveDDB has produced the store’s Christmas ads for the past five years and created an annual event. But unlike previous campaigns, which were just for Christmas, the narrative of The Bear & The Hare could have legs on it yet.

It wasn’t just a YouTube hit – children’s books and soft-toy versions of the two animated woodland friends were also popular. When you look at what a price comparison site has done with its meerkats, the potential for a big retailer to develop this franchise is considerable.

Twitter: @iburrell