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"Journalism and PR: News Media and Public Relations in the Digital Age"

Sina Odugbemi's picture
journalist and public relations on cameraThe communication business worldwide is, at bottom, a collaborative tussle between two tribes: the tribe of journalists working for newspapers, magazines and broadcast stations versus the tribe of publicists and communicators who work for different organizations, and those personalities important and rich enough to afford full time support. For decades, if not centuries, there was no doubting which tribe was stronger. Journalists had the whip hand simply because they were the gatekeepers. They controlled access to mass publics, they shaped reputations, and they decided what mattered and what did not. When I was active in the media, both in Lagos and London, my colleagues and I disdained PR practitioners. They were supplicants, always imploring us to use a press release, always anxious about how a boss or the organization they worked for would be portrayed by our newspaper.

Well, according to John Lloyd and Laura Toogood, the pecking order is changing. In a new book published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford, United Kingdom, the authors make the following case:
 

Public relations is booming at present, and its mechanisms and practices are being adopted by corporations and companies across the globe. Journalism in the developed world is undergoing a series of radical changes, and is available in a greater choice of forms than ever before. The first, however, is highly profitable: while newspaper, magazine, and some forms of broadcast journalism struggle to discover a stable model for making profits. This will not change soon.

Newspapers and magazines under pressure are thus pulling their editorial closer to public relations and advertising to secure funding, both in the carriage of native advertising and in using public relations narratives. The internet, which increasingly carries all media, blurs the distinctions which had taken physical form in the pre-digital era. (p. 129)

Is the case the authors make persuasive? Absolutely. This is an important practitioner text because it captures fundamental elements of communication practice as it moves from one epoch to another. The authors start with a history of public relations as a field of practice, discussing early classic texts like Edward Bernay’s notorious ‘The Engineering of Consent’ (1947). The three core substantive chapters focus on corporate PR, political communication and the Internet ‘as a mechanism for a changed relationship between PR and journalism’. There is a tantalizing chapter on ‘PR Elsewhere’, which includes short briefs that take on PR and communication practice in China, Russia and France.

What is most striking about the book, its unique selling proposition as it were (to use the lingo!), is the tremendous access the authors had to top communication practitioners. Some were willing to be identified; others spoke anonymously. And they are quoted liberally by the authors. As a practitioner, that’s the part of the book that I find most arresting and useful, and that I am likely to go back to again and again. The text bristles with insights.  As you read, you are left in no doubt regarding the growing power of both corporate communication and political communication vis-a-vis journalism. The fundamental development appears to be disintermediation: journalists are no longer dominant gatekeepers/intermediaries. Citizens and groups can now engage in one-to-many communication; and corporations and governments are now media organizations. Hence the new PR cliché: ‘Every organization is a media organization’.

I have two suggestions for the authors. I hope that next time the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism will take an important study of this kind global. Chapter 5 offers brief, tantalizing glimpses of communication practice in China, Russia and France, whereas the core of the text is really about Anglo-American practice.  We need more of the global view. I would suggest a survey of key markets in different regions of the world. I would propose surveys of South Africa and Nigeria on the African continent, both growing outposts of global communication practice. I would also propose surveys of India and Pakistan in South Asia, where domination of the media by corporations appears far advanced, sometimes in blatantly corrupt ways. And, finally, surveys of communication practice in Brazil and Argentina in Latin America, unique environments, particularly for understanding media ownership and power. Those surveys will, I’m confident, offer rich insights.  Global corporations are active in all these markets, and political leaders and parties are using political communication techniques imported from the US, with adaptive elements.

Perhaps because this is a practitioner text, one thing that is missing from the book is a political economy lens, except in the brief sections on China and Russia in Chapter 5. My second suggestion to the authors is to reflect on this next time. What is the interlacing of media ownership, corporate ownership and political power? What the authors describe is a transformation of the public sphere leading to a transformation of relations between journalism and PR. This has tremendous implications for power in society. Thinkers like Jürgen Habermas argue that for the health of democratic society the domination of the public sphere by the powerful ought to be avoided. The authors describe a world in which corporate speech, and speech by politicians running the best funded campaigns, bombard and dominate the public sphere in the societies covered by the text. The great liberal ideal of the public sphere as a free market place of ideas would appear to be a vanishing ideal. That, I submit, is too important an angle to leave out.
 
Finally, this: If you want an example of an on-going controversy regarding where these changes in the communication environment are leading, please see “Why I resigned from the Telegraph” by Peter Oborne.
 


Book: Journalism and PR: News Media and Public Relations in the Digital Age by John Lloyd and Laura Toogood. Palgrave Macmillan: 2015

Photograph by Max Talbot-Minkin, via flickr

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