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Matthew Parris

It’s time for journalists to be honest about their corrupting involvement with PR

Matthew Parris offers Another Voice

2 December 2009

12:00 AM

2 December 2009

12:00 AM

I was due this week to interview a person I much admire, for a publication I respect, and for a fee I could more or less live with. My putative interviewee was my undoubted superior in terms both of intellect and genius: someone who has for many years managed a career with skill and flair. The parameters of the interview were benign: given the surrounding circumstances and the nature of the publication there could be no question of my wanting to embarrass or trap my interviewee. In short, this was to be a friendly interview with a capable adult conducted for the mutual advantage of both parties and (in this case) the public good. There were no imaginable elephant traps for anyone involved.

A day before our rendezvous I received an email from the people setting it up informing me — just so I knew — that my interviewee’s PR would be sitting in on the discussion, ‘at [her client’s] request’. I realised at once that the requesting was more likely to have been the other way round.

My gorge rose at the idea. I withdrew from the interview at once. A conversation between two people which is being monitored by a third, whose job is the professional protection of the interests of one of them, will always, if subtly, be changed by the presence of the third person, even if they never utter a word. Media etiquette would for some reason make it unthinkable that in writing up the interview the journalist should mention that a PR was sitting in, or chipping in; so readers would be uninformed of a salient fact.

I am not trying here to boast about my imagined probity as a journalist. No journalist wants PRs to poke their noses into their work, but few get much choice. Sent by your editor to conduct a celebrity interview which your superiors had pre-arranged — and returning with the news that your principles had prevented you conducting it — you would hardly be likely to be congratulated on the tenderness of your conscience. I, however, could in this case enjoy the luxury of high-mindedness because I’m a freelance columnist who did not particularly need this assignment. So I indulged myself.

The reply came straight back that in this case the PR would not attend, and had in any case only meant to be on hand in case an important fact or figure were needed. So the interview is — at the time of writing — set to proceed, after all.

And I’m looking forward to it. I certainly don’t blame my intended interviewee, whom I doubt had much to do with any of this and who certainly cannot lack the confidence to be interviewed unaided. I don’t particularly blame the PR either: PRs have to make work for themselves and probably calculate that it’s better to do too much than too little.

But I do — a bit — blame my own trade for putting up with this sort of thing. By so often agreeing without a fight to conditions imposed by professional advisers, we have made ourselves pushovers for that most expansionist of industries, the communications and marketing trade, and helped them to insinuate themselves where they never used to.

I have one observation to make; and one concrete proposal. A large part of the work of the public relations industry and related trades rests on a huge confidence trick whose principal victim is not the public but the client. By outsourcing the management of your reputation to paid professionals you inflict upon yourself a harm about which nobody is likely to alert you.

First, you arouse a carefully suppressed resentment in the intermediaries between yourself and your public: the media. A journalist will rarely tell you that your PRs irritate him; or that he thinks a little the less of you for not being able to deal with him direct and unassisted. He will not tell you that he takes with a pinch of salt the interventions or explanations of your PR. He will not tell you that the very existence of a PR shield around a person or corporation excites in him the ambition to outwit or annoy it. PR is like BO: even your best friends are unlikely to admit to their discomfort.

I said that the principal victim is not the public. That is because the public is not fooled nearly as much or as often by public relations as the PR industry pretends (not least to itself). In my experience we react to PR as we react to body-language: subliminally, without knowing that, or how, we do. But there are ways in which corporations talk to their customers, or individuals talk (on advice) to the media, which the public can smell even if not identify. Authenticity is the one thing the PR industry finds it impossible to fake for long.

This is an observation about marketing. And whom do we hire to supply us with advice about marketing? The very people whose worth this advice calls into question. It is not advice they are likely to offer, or perhaps even to admit to themselves, for it saws off the branch where they sit.

So much for the observation. Now the concrete proposal. Journalists do not really have the kind of professional body that might frame industry rules, but unspoken collective understandings do arise. There’s a need to harden these up as regards the intervention of PR. I’m not so Utopian as to suggest we should never deal with hired communications professionals; but I think we owe it to our readers, listeners and viewers to deconstruct what we present them, and to be more upfront about the involvement of PR. Where three are present at an interview that is supposed to involve only two, we should say so. Where conditions have been made about the ambit of a profile or interview, we should acknowledge (without specifying) these. Where we have buckled under and agreed to ‘copy approval’ by those we write about it, our audience should know it.

The journalist’s (or editor’s) response to a demand for any of these filters should not necessarily be to refuse the demand, but to make a very modest condition: the simple insistence that the existence of the filter should be disclosed in the column, picture or programme. If, as the marketing industry claims, the public are media-savvy, know PR and don’t care about its wiles, then what harm is done? If, on the other hand, people do care and would mind, what honourable reason can there be for not telling them? Like ‘this product contains traces of nuts’, a simple health warning — ‘this column contains traces of PR’ — should suffice.

Matthew Parris is a columnist for the Times.

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