There’s a discussion most PR professionals have had at least once – the discussion about the morals of our profession. This discussion normally leads to the same questions, which I have also heard several times: How do you sleep at night? Can you look yourself in the eye when you look in the mirror? You, who started out as a journalist, a fighter for freedom of speech and freedom of information, a paragon for the truth, how could you end up in the claws of Big Business and, instead, spread misinformation and propaganda? How much did the devil pay for your soul? Questions I can answer with: safe, sound and snoring; yes; it’s complicated; that’s personal.
Obviously – at least it’s obvious for most people actually working in the industry – these questions are based on a complete misunderstanding of not only our job, but of journalistic work as well. And I can’t blame them – most societies generate images of a certain profession through their depiction in fictional media. That’s why, when people think about journalists, they think about Cal McCaffrey from “State of Play” and William DeWorde from “The Truth”. On the other hand, there’s sleazy Nick Naylor from “Thank You For Smoking” (technically, he’s a lobbyist, but he gets linked to PR quite often) and the jerk-ass, arrogant, offensively rich and cowardly PR man Dominic Foy from (again) “State of Play”. In the fictional examples, there’s occasionally some effort to give journalists a few faults and PR people some sympathetic features – in “Thank You For Smoking”, Katie Holmes’ journalist sleeps with her interviewee to get confidential information, while Aaron Eckhart’s character is shown as a loving father – but that’s mostly just a plot device to create some drama, the roles stay the same. (It’s similar in “State of Play”, except that Marc Warren’s / Jason Bateman’s PR man didn’t even get one redeemable feature – instead, they gave those to the scheming politician…)
Clearly, these memories and fictional depictions often overlook the harsh reality; that journalists frequently spend months or years pushing a personal or publisher-dictated agenda – German newspapers brought a whole (useless) law into existence that was meant to allow publishers to charge Google for showing snippets on Google News; that there are about five times more fact-checking mechanisms involved in any PR story than in journalistic articles; that although I now write and work for my clients, as a journalist I often worked twice as hard to please advertising customers. And that in the future more and more good-quality and investigative journalism won’t be coming from the publisher side, but from companies and NGOs.
There are, of course, exceptions on both sides – the good journalists and the bad PR people, which is where the stereotypes actually come from. There are also fictional works, where journalists are reduced to publicity hungry, irresponsible morons (usually if there’s no PR person in the story). There’s also quite often a lot of confusion about what it actually is we actually do and how we are different from advertisers and marketers. However, what I would say about the whole discussion about morals in PR and journalism is there is no black and white in the media business; I’m incredibly happy in what I do for a living; and I will continue to laugh a lot about the depictions of our profession in film and literature.