Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The increasing importance of public relations and its impact on journalistic ethics

Advertising and public relations are both fields of which the public has an extremely negative opinion and low level of trust. As a student of advertising, I can proudly say that I truly believe that advertising is absolutely not an "evil" field. Recently, I've come to realize that public relations isn't, either.
I think public relations has a bad reputation because, by definition, it is a means by which a corporation or organization can promote its own good will. It is all too easy to deduce that this must mean there is plenty of bias--but what is wrong with putting a "spin" on a story?

Perhaps the problem is that it is feeding opinion instead of plain fact. Press releases are written about a variety of events and situations, however. Is it opinion to say that Company X had an event last weekend, raising a great deal of money for a local nonprofit? No. Public relations practitioners are trained as journalists--they report facts in their press releases and other tools, perhaps with the exception of opinion editorials.

Is the problem that there is deceit by omission of facts that might change the reader's perception of a story? First, this necessitates that the PR professional is aware of important information and is choosing not to report or comment on it. Not responding or being present for comment is the number one no-no of PR, especially in times of crisis.

The video below discusses how companies should and should not handle their own crises, and I include it because I think it's important to see that nowhere in this video or in any PR textbook will you find anyone promoting ideas similar to those that garbage men should now be referred to as waste management technicians. What I mean is that PR is not always about using prettier words to say the same thing -- in fact, this video and most professionals in the field would argue that using misleading content is more harmful than it is effective.

There is a tool that some PR professionals use that may be less than ethical. This article discusses an attempt from SPJ to decrease news stations' use of VNRs.

WoBM, a public relations and marketing blog, suggests that "no PR leads to bad PR." This sparks many questions.
  • The statement "no PR leads to bad PR" suggests that the stories that the corporation or organization is included in will be negative (in a situation where there is no PR).
  • If the content that is provided to readers about your company is going to be negative more often than not, does that not beg the question of whether or not reporters themselves are biased? In my personal experience in researching in previous public relations classes here at Ohio University, it is clear that newspapers won't run stories about how JCPenney relaunched its holiday-inspired charity (although JCPenney still will produce the press releases and related materials). Newspapers tend to instead focus on responses from companies in crises situations.
In my Media and Publicity class several quarters ago, my textbook cited a statistic that the majority of news content is generated from press releases and/or media kits.

If PR is so deceitful and wrong, why are journalists using its tools to generate content? Are journalists lazy, or is PR a necessity?

There is a tool that some PR professionals use that may be less than ethical. This article discusses an attempt from SPJ to decrease news stations' use of VNRs.

There is such a wealth of information (let alone companies, organizations, etc.) in our increasingly digital age that it would be impossible to expect a journalist to know all things going on all places. PR has its place. It is a useful (and ethical) alternative to unknowingly missing stories the public deserves to know about.

Melissa Pennington

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