Can you trust PR?

EDITOR'S BLOG A lively twitter debate over the role of PRs and journalists has got me thinking about corporate comms, hacks, and honesty.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 25 Sep 2015

So, this time last week I was unwittingly penning a little blog to keep August  traffic ticking along and it went seriously viral. The piece started off as a light-hearted look at a Twitter site called @smugjourno which holds hacks to account for belittling PRs who try to sell them stories. It then pointed out that PR is currently in a healthier state than journalism and finished with a personal anecdote and an exit gag. Job done, I went off to lunch.

It was received with acclaim and relief by thousands in the communications industry. I collected loads of new Twitter followers and was feeling quite pleased with myself. OK it was slightly worrying that a little skit like that struck such a chord with the industry, and made me worry for its collective sense of self-respect. But never mind. Just bank the clicks.

A lone journalist engaged with me about its contents on Twitter. She’s called Miriam Malek and I spent a while yesterday sparring with her by keyboard as she feistily called me pompous, a ‘corporate snob’ and who knows what else. I seriously admire her spirit, and her defence of hackery - something which one encounters too infrequently among members of a trade who are pretty much up against it at the moment. It reminded me why I still prefer being a journalist to being a comms person. So good luck in your career, Miriam. We’ll remain virtuous, albeit poorer, than those in comms.  

But she went too far. As the 140 characters went flying back and forth, I said I thought the role of good PRs was ‘ to try to keep businesses honest and to maintain trust among customers and the wider public.’ She implied that their job was just to bury bad news which she said is the opposite of journalism. Write something about honesty, she challenged.

Journos are honest, PRs are not. Hmmn. I think Miriam is on dodgier ground here. And this is why. When I took over as editor of MT, way back when, we had a monthly budget for public relations to promote the magazine to the outside world. It was several grand a month and the work was done by the outfit that also looked after the Booker prize, JK Rowling and Nigella Lawson. It worked very well.

Nowadays we don’t have that kind of discretionary cash sitting about so when we have something we wish to shout about, we do it ourselves. Thus this week, feeling very pleased with our witty yet telling piece about the A level results of the UK’s leading business people, we set about becoming PRs for an afternoon. We got something into The Times which, considering the author also writes our car reviews, wasn’t all that hard, frankly. The Today programme  - the Holy Grail which we sometimes grasp - gave us a polite no. I avoided 5 Live as i didn’t fancy getting up at 4.45 AM. An ex-MT staffer at The Telegraph didn’t even bother to respond to my warm email. (Thanks, Lizzy.) We did so-so. We won’t be giving up the day job.   

But the point is we weren’t lying about our wares or indeed burying anything. We had a really nice article that we had sufficient confidence in to wish to bring to an even bigger audience than usual. Maybe even make a few more MT converts in the process.

I don’t believe for one moment that MT is the only business out there with a measure of integrity that wishes to bring truth, justice and poetry to the world and maybe even make a few bob to pay the wages and our owners in the process. And, god knows, getting heard in a world filled by shrill white noise and Buzzfeed lists is not easy.

It was that old twit Malcolm Muggeridge who called PR ‘organised lying.’ (He was the one who appeared on TV when Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ came out arguing it was blasphemous.) Even if PR fulfilled this role it simply cannot do this any more because it gets found out so easily. Pumping out lies has ceased to be terribly effective. Even in Russia or Venezuela.

With the arrival of social media, keeping an untruth inflated and airborne is virtually impossible. Too many troublemakers will take pot shots at it.  Robert Phillips’ book ‘Trust Me, PR is Dead’  looks at some of these issues. And, having run Edelman for yonks, he knows what he’s on about. Our review is here.

Just look at the halo-effect sympathy the supermarkets are trying to create by starting differential pricing for milk. Milking positive sentiment from milk. It won’t work. Normal people now know all about supermarkets’ relationships with their suppliers. It’s no longer just staff at The Grocer who know about the bullying, the unpaid invoices, the fines for delivering your pallet 10 minutes late, the enforced rebates.

You just know, even now, that someone somewhere in a supermarket dairy department is gaming this milk magnanimity thing. Working out an angle. Just like the banks who took government money after the crash and immediately started fiddling the exchequer on Libor. Just like WH Smith shabbily pocketing VAT refunds at airports. And it’s not the PRs that are creating this behaviour. They just get told to communicate the spurious virtue. Businesses with rotten cultures are businesses  with rotten cultures, they are not businesses with a comms problem.  Although they might have this, as well.

Incidentally, if you want a piece about the complex truths surrounding dairy farmers and the  milk scandal  by an excellent, seasoned  journalist with good judgment read Simon Jenkins’ article here.

This is all good because it means that PRs might eventually develop rather healthier, open, honest and more productive relationships with media. Something less transactional and more based on honest dealing. The Trust Thing is not going to go away anytime soon. Because neither the public nor the hacks - especially not Miriam - can be taken for a fool.  

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