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We are living in what one author describes as “highly promotional times.” Governments and corporations, nonprofits and special interest groups, all have spin doctors trying to turn the news to their advantage. This increasingly incestuous connection between the practitioners of public relations and journalism has resulted in a troubling shift in power. Public Relations and the Press examines how this shift came to be and explores the questions it raises about the role of media in a democratic society and the future of journalism.
A democracy works when individuals have access to reliable information upon which to base decisions—information that in our day comes from the mass media. But what if journalists do not have the wherewithal to question their sources and evaluate the information they provide? This, Karla K. Gower explains, is precisely what happens when economic and competitive pressures shift power from the journalist to the source—and the source, not the journalist, controls the flow of information to the public. Gowers describes a situation in which people, “informed” by practitioners of public relations, do not have sufficient information to make valid decisions. At stake is the core credibility of the press itself, and therefore the essential claim of journalism to a privileged role in a democratic social order.
We are living in, as one author described it, highly "promotional times." Governments, corporations, nonprofit organizations, and special interest groups all seek to get their messages across to the public via the media. Spin doctors and the discussion of the use of spin are everywhere. Journalism and public relations have become so blurred it is hard to determine where the one stops and the other starts. Understanding how we arrived at this point of hyper-spin is important for understanding the current state of journalism and the future of democracy. Sources today bypass traditional news outlets in favor of entertainment outlets and the Internet; for example, political candidates announce their intentions to run for office on late-night talk shows instead of calling news conferences. More insidious are the "secret" efforts to control the information we receive, such as the practice of paying columnists to tout a particular stance on a policy issue or the government's distribution of video news releases (VNRs) as objective news stories. Such techniques raise serious questions about the quality of the information we receive, for we cannot develop an informed opinion about an issue if the information we receive is based on deception. Although vigilant news outlets disclosed the deception in these cases, the damage had been done: many people did not see or pay attention to the subsequent stories. Even more troubling is the sense that deceiving the public and being caught at it is not a big deal. Everyone quickly moves on to something else, and there is no accountability for those involved. While public relations practitioners and journalists are not necessarily responsible for the deception, the role they play in enabling such deception needs to be explored because it directly impacts the state of our democracy.
Journalists have always depended on sources. Without a source of information, the journalist has little to report. What the development of public relations brought to the table was, in effect, the professional source. PR practitioners arranged sources for journalists and they themselves served as sources by providing journalists with information. But PR practitioners are not neutral providers of sources or information; they are advocates. Thus, journalists seek sources and information for news, and PR practitioners seek to use the media to get their clients' messages to their various publics. This dependent relationship has always been an uneasy one. Although journalists and public relations practitioners need each other, the idea that news can be managed threatens the journalistic ideals of objectivity, truth, and balance. But the symbiotic relationship worked so long as the traditional hierarchy between media and source existed-that is, so long as journalists maintained editorial autonomy and public relations remained relatively underdeveloped and underresourced. Today, the practice of public relations has expanded and become more sophisticated at the same time that editorial resources have declined. The news media in the United States are increasingly subject to competition from new media, concentrated ownership, and deregulation. Journalists are being asked to do more with less resources in a 24-7 world, forcing them to rely more and more on information from public relations practitioners. Although they retain their editorial autonomy over what does get covered and how it is covered, they are being forced increasingly into reactive, passive positions rather than pursuing their own investigations. At the same time, competition for audience share has grown with the expansion of media sources, such as cable, satellite, and the World Wide Web. Media outlets have turned to advertorials, celebrity news, crime reporting, and human interest stories to entice people to tune in, rather than reporting news that affects the community's governance.
The result has been a shift in power that affects the journalist-news source relationship and the provision of information. It also raises questions about the purpose of the mass media in a mediated society. If democracy is based on the premise that individuals can make rational decisions when given the information to do so and if, in a complex society, that information must come through the mass media, then what is the media's role? What obligation do the mass media have to provide the people in a democracy with the information they need? The U.S. media have long prided themselves on being free-on being independent of government control. But what is the nature of media independence in today's society? Can journalists within a corporately owned news outlet be truly independent? And if the concept of objectivity requires journalists to rely on official sources, are journalists even independent of the government? Some argue that the power elites, such as government and corporations, have extended their control and influence over the media and, by extension, over society. Others suggest that the development of public relations has allowed special interest groups the opportunity to participate, through their access to the media, in the public discourse in ways that were closed to them previously. Regardless of which view is correct, the journalistic ideals of objectivity and balance have been threatened.
The purpose of this work is to examine how the shift in power came to be. Although others have decried the impact of commercialization on American culture and the way in which corporate ownership of media outlets has caused the blurring of news and entertainment, this book will focus on the relationship between public relations and the press. Public relations can, of course, be considered part of the whole commercialization package, but while advertising and marketing sell products and services, public relations promotes images and concepts. All deal with persuasion, but public relations involves issues that affect democracy itself.
A democracy works when individuals have access to quality information, that is, when they have access to various arguments and facts from which to form opinions and make decisions. In a mediated society, that information comes from the mass media. The watchdog role and the value of objectivity posit that journalists serve, in a sense, as stand-ins for, or representatives of, the people. Journalists are to seek out various sources of information and provide the people with an objective and balanced view of what is going on so that the people can formulate opinions from that information. But as the power has shifted from the journalist to the source, the media have become not a stand-in for the people but a stand-in for the source. Thus, the source effectively controls the information the people receive. If the people do not have access to quality information on which to make valid decisions or if they do not actively engage with such information, then they are not exercising sovereignty-they are merely doing what they are told to do. The democracy is a facade and illusory.
This book examines the development of public relations in the business, government, and activist group sectors after World War II and how that development affected the media. It also examines the factors affecting journalists' ability to interact with their sources and provide newsworthy information. The focus is on the interaction between journalists and public relations practitioners on three different levels: the physical (the process of gathering and collecting the news), the social (the social relationships between journalists and PR practitioners), and the cultural (the professional or societal beliefs, values, and expectations held by journalists and PR practitioners). I argue that passive journalistic practices brought on by economic and competitive pressures have contributed, in part, to the shift in power and have given public relations practitioners a greater ability to manage the news. The book does not-and is not meant to-suggest that the growing power of PR is necessarily a dangerous or bad thing. PR practitioners provide information and story ideas to journalists and, by extension, the public to which they would not otherwise have access. The real problem with the power shift is that the news media are losing credibility, and that is dangerous for everyone-journalists, PR practitioners, and the public. It should be noted, however, that the book investigates just one aspect of public relations-media relations, or the use by PR practitioners of the mass media to get their clients' messages to their publics. It should also be noted that the examination is restricted to the federal government, especially the presidency, because presidents are inherently newsworthy and, for obvious reasons, vital to a democracy. World War II is the starting point because public relations as a profession really developed in the aftermath of the war.
Most scholars agree that modern public relations arose at the end of the nineteenth century in response to social and cultural changes such as industrialization, urbanization, growing literacy rates, and the rise of newspapers as a mass medium. PR scholars Melvin Sharpe and Betty Pritchard argued that public relations emerged as a profession in response to the empowerment of public opinion as a result of three converging factors: democracy, social interdependence, and instantaneous communication abilities. Thus, it is no surprise that a need for public relations arose as newspapers became more professional and their reach broadened. Journalists came to see themselves and their product as supporting the public good. They were the watchdogs of government, the defenders of democracy, and the champions of the people. The traits of objectivity-"fairness, detachment, nonpartisanship, and balance"-were in place and were held up as the ideal. And the techniques of objective reporting were established: relying on official sources, giving both sides of an issue, and providing some context for the event being covered.
The combination of the watchdog role and objectivity led to an increase in what was called publicity but was essentially reporting on local events. Publicity expanded the definition of news, encroaching on what had previously been considered private information: what had once been seen as private (how a business was run, for instance) was now deemed public. And the evils of corporate monopolies became a favorite target of publicity. Because of this change in public sentiment toward corporate expansion, fueled by a burgeoning newspaper industry that blurred the traditional public-private boundary, corporate public relations became a necessity. The magazine Century claimed in 1903 that "modern publicity is, indeed, playing so large a part in the psychology of our day that its effects are believed by thoughtful minds to be deep and pervasive." Companies slowly came to the realization that silence in the face of attack was an erroneous policy-and that they were, in fact, public institutions, whether they liked it or not. Standard Oil released a public statement for the first time in 1904, and John D. Rockefeller hired publicist Ivy Lee in 1914 to help him with his public image. Public opinion was beginning to be a force to be reckoned with at that time. In a 1908 article titled "The Passing of Corporate Secrecy," the magazine World's Work noted that "there is an inevitable prying quality in public opinion, which has no doubt been made very acute by the prying quality of our newspapers for a generation-an illegitimate curiosity that goes beyond the public's rights. But whether this curiosity be legitimate or not, it is wise to heed it. It is necessary in fact."
Corporations and governments did come to heed public opinion, but the degree to which they did so varied throughout the first half of the twentieth century. It was not until after World War II that the three factors Sharpe and Pritchard identified as necessary for the empowerment of public opinion really came together and forced organizations and governments to consistently consider public opinion in their decision making.
Therefore, this book begins with an examination of the rise of the professional source after World War II. The field of public relations experienced unprecedented growth in that period. Part of the expansion was attributable to the returning men and women who had served as government public information officers during the war and now sought to use their newly acquired skills in the private sector. The other part was attributable to the booming economy, which opened up new consumer markets for businesses. Public relations practitioners who had entered the field before the war complained that the influx of new practitioners would bring down the reputation of the field. Thus, they called for a greater emphasis on professionalism and ethical standards.
Practitioners themselves were not the only ones critical of the expanding profession. Social critics lamented the growing commercialization of the American culture. Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders and Irwin Ross in The Image Merchants attempted to expose what they perceived as the insidiousness of public relations. Unlike advertisers, PR practitioners operated behind the scenes to "sell" images, not products, and shape beliefs. At the same time, television was beginning to impact politics and journalism, as people working in those fields experimented with the new medium. Some journalists also came to question whether their devotion to objectivity had provided Senator Joseph McCarthy with a bully pulpit. Chapter 2, then, discusses the development of public relations following World War II, especially in terms of its growth and professionalism. It also considers how the media reacted to the expansion of public relations and examines the rise of television and its impact on politics.
Chapter 3 examines the 1960s, a decade of great social unrest. Activists in the civil rights movement at first found it difficult to achieve meaningful social change. But soon, they realized they could harness the power of the press to achieve their goals of social change by organizing planned events. Those events, such as lunch counter sit-ins and the march on Selma, are etched into the American collective consciousness thanks to the television coverage they received. The media did not always take the activists and their demands seriously, but they did cover them, and people did take notice. Much as television recorded the events of the civil rights movement, it also recorded presidential debates and battles in Vietnam. Journalists and politicians were learning about the power of television and the visual. Meanwhile, corporations, fearing change they were not controlling, responded to the civil rights movement by developing the process of issues management, a means of monitoring the environment for emerging issues and determining appropriate ways of dealing with those issues in advance.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s led to the consumer movement of the 1970s, which is examined in chapter 4. As the economy took a downturn, people laid the blame on businesses and anticorporate sentiment grew. Corporations were seen as arrogant, uncaring, and "soulless" entities. In response, corporations turned to advocacy ads to tell their side of the story. Advocacy ads put a "face" on corporations by setting out corporate positions on important issues of the day. Businesses also sought to improve the way their executives interacted with journalists. Media-training consultants sprang up to meet the corporate demand, offering guidance to company officials on what to wear, how to look, how to speak in sound bites-how to, in other words, manage an interview.
Excerpted from PUBLIC RELATIONS AND THE PRESS by Karla K. Gower
Copyright © 2007 by Karla K. Gower. Excerpted by permission.
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