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Transparency and Youth In Symbiotic Professions :: PR and Journalism

Transparency. Yes, if we hear too much more about it, I’m sure we’ll all toss a few cookies.

Public relations and journalism are involved in a symbiotic relationship. Sometimes. The relationship is supposed to be honest, truthful and mutually beneficial. It is, most definately, one of dependence – and that is a habit no rehab center is ever going to break. We enable one another in many of our efforts.

There is a tendancy for one part to see themselves as a host – the other as a parasite, or leech. Certainly, those relationships do exist. It is the sad truth.

Lately, the two professions have been grappling with ways to improve their standing in the eyes of the public. Transparency is the new buzzword. One, of many cautions to recognize in this practice is the sincerity of the effort. If just saying or promising transparency – in either profession – is seen as bleeding to heal, then we are all in trouble. Practicing transparency is one thing. Just mouthing it is another. And, practicing it – even honestly – may come back to bite you in the end.

Several interesting posts, and comments to those posts, have surfaced in the past few days and I wish to share them with you. So, here we go.

In a recent post here about Keith O’Brien’s foray into blog world, the transparency topic brought up some interesting conversation from Keith and Terry Fallis of the Inside PR podcast.

Seeking answers to some of the questions raised there (and elsewhere) I found this from the American Journalism Review (AJR). It is the article Too Transparent? (April/May issue). A comprehensive effort with many interviews from around the world of journalism, this article does a good job of addressing many of the issues. It is suggested for your reading pleasure. I read it in the “deadwood form.” We are happy recipients of several copies in the department.

…PR and Journalism are both struggling with transparency and the reputations of their professions … so the discussion can be come a bit whiny and winded, at times … but, it is a valuable discussion…

But what exactly should news organizations be open about? Are we trying too hard to explain ourselves, being too needy, wasting too much time on the therapist’s couch, with a motley lot of bloggers, partisans and pundits as our Dr. Phil? Is more transparency always better, or are there dangers lurking within an otherwise healthy movement? In short, is the pressure for explaining spiraling out of control?There was also this section from New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller:

Keller says he hasn’t “boiled this down to a set of rules or a formula about what you answer and what you don’t. I don’t feel readers are necessarily entitled to sit in on the editing process or to eavesdrop on our decision making. We’re not obliged to account for every step on the way to publication, or non-publication, for that matter. Some stories we don’t publish because we don’t know enough. They don’t meet our standards yet. They need to be thought through a little better.”

This is oh, so new … blogs and social media (they are mentioned in the article, too)

(Keller)’s mostly stopped reading the media blogs, including Romenesko’s influential one on the Poynter Institute Web site (he still finds Gawker hard to resist). “There’s nothing wrong with them, and I don’t object to their existence,” Keller says. “It’s just that they can lead to a tremendous and to a somewhat disorienting degree of self-absorption.”

I don’t know what the end result will be. Best practice today may well be to embrace and adopt new media while continuing to adapt your traditional practice. There are no simple answers. But, ignoring social media as a tool / tactic to offer a transparent look inside your news organization or PR practice (to whatever degree) is not likely a good idea. Why not explore and adopt some form of greater visibility via a blog rather than waiting for the “next big thing.” Because, your wait may mean that you cannot catch up. Still, the other caution rings true, too. Blogging is not for everyone and won’t answer all of your problems.

The best quote may be this one from Steven A. Smith, editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington:

He says transparency has got to have some thought behind it. “It’s not a silver bullet,” Smith says. “It’s not a solution to our ongoing problems. It’s just one little piece of a lot of things we need to be doing, and even those may not be enough.”

Hmm? Sounds like sage advice. However, PR is growing. Journalism is struggling. But, it could also be the one thing all of the PR/Marketing proponents of blogs need to hear about blogs, too. “It’s not a silver bullet,” Smith says. “It’s not a solution to our ongoing problems” of reaching fragmented audiences. “It’s just one little piece of a lot of things we need to be doing, and even those may not be enough.” Sorry, I had to repeat it. We still need sound traditional PR practices.

I also thought of this post by Andrea Weckerle while reading the AJR article.

PR News editor Phil Hall writes about the new realities in “who is writing your news” at today’s publications. His article is a bit of new transparency, in itself.

Why are there so many mediocre writers coming into journalism today? The answer can be divided into four parts.

1. There are very few contemporary journalism “stars” for tomorrow’s writers to look up to.
2. The average journalism student knows nothing about how the “bigger” world operates.
3. The Internet is crippling journalism.
4. There is no economic incentive because of inadequate starting salaries in journalism.

…and then…

The average journalism student knows nothing about how the “bigger” world operates. If you are a J-school student, the focus of your studies is on journalism. It makes sense in theory, but in reality it leaves the student unprepared to handle assignments on complex subjects (e.g.: corporate and political maneuverings).

Students. Remember the wise advice you’ve heard, or read, from Jack O’Dwyer and Richard Edelman over the past few weeks. Read newspapers. Explore the world at large. Dive into business, economics, history – oh, hell … all the disciplines. And then, read more newspapers. Become familiar with the world. Reading four papers a day may not even be enough.

Hall’s search for thoughful young recruits relates to PR, as well. Hey, all too frequently we hear how PR junior staffers are given tasks – without proper directions or training (in some firms). School’s can’t prepare you for everything. There is too much. But, we can try to provide a foundation.

Well, Hall’s article points out that the practice of using an enorcous number of entry level staff is not solely the domain of PR. He writes of how both professions are relying more and more on youth to achieve profitable ends. Translation: margins are thin and papers (like PR conglomerates) are using low cost labor to create product and seek profits. Gee, who knew.

And, if that’s not enough reading suggestions for you … here is Neville Hobson’s The real symbiosis between PR and journalism. It relates because promising transparency is the latest politically correct phrase to spew in PR and journalism.

In a jaundiced view of the relationship between journalism and PR in politics, (John) Lloyd’s “The Truth about Spin” in Friday’s FT presents an uncomfortable partnership between two professions where neither appears to have anything other than self-interest as its motive for being…

Well, Lloyd does cover a lot of the same ol’, same ol, but he also makes some good points. The thing that should tip you off to the article as being penned by a journalist is — the title. Most of his article is just recycled perceptions and pontifications about PR and journalism. It is, however, an interesting read. Why? Because Lloyd speaks of a board that has been created to try and bring some resolution – or peace – between the disciplines so that postive work may move forward. Hey, you can’t argue with an effort like that, so – more power to them.

Aaahhhh. There’s a lot of love in those posts and the ensuing comments. Eh, not really.



  • http://blogsurvey.backbonemedia.com John Cass

    In the new world of consumer generated media and personal publishing platforms you begin to ask the question are journalists relevant? Maybe that’s what you mean when you suggest that journalism has been knocked a little by the changes in the marketplace.

    I think you stated correctly that PR is growing, but I think that PR is evolving, with other professions to use the new medium of blogs and CGM to talk directly with an audience.

    Some will say that journalists are no longer relevant I don’t believe that’s the case, I just think that journalists and traditional news media will have to learn some new tricks to communicate with their audiences more directly using the internet. In some ways there’s nothing new here. We have always had letters to the editor.

    Maybe it’s not the change in technology that journalists fear but the change in culture. With reality TV and the loss of respect for professions in general the new expert is the non-expert the consumer and the citizen.

    Somewhat like Benjamin Franklin when he wore the garb of the frontier in Paris to charm the French for warships, maybe more journalists will have to wear the garb of the ordinary citizen when writing in voice within the new medium?

    PR professionals are adapting rapidly to the new culture. Yet as an Internet marketing professional I think the PR professional is no longer the sole practitioner in this space. When it comes to blogger relations other professions can play equally well, and not bring any history to the table.

    Rather I think the new profession of blogger relations will learn from many older professions, and bring to the table a higher level of transparency in order to be successful.

  • http://www.auburnmedia.com/wordpress/ Robert French

    Agreed, John. PR is evolving. Regarding PR’s growth, in that reference I was really talking about PR’s growth as an industry (rising revenues, interest in the curriculum by students, etc.).

    Journalists are indeed still relevant. I would hate to think of a day when they were not.

    New media channels / tactics will not replace the old … it will cause them to adapt. Heck, wireless – even morse code – still exists. I digress, but the idea of social media pushing out journalism altogether is a dream (or nightmare). I don’t buy into it.

  • http://blogsurvey.backbonemedia.com John Cass

    I agree to that Robert.