By Paul John Caña
“Journalism is printing what someone else doesn’t want printed; everything else is public relations.” The truism, often attributed to writer George Orwell, applies not just to the reportage of news, but everything else trumpeted through mass media. Business, lifestyle, sports, entertainment; every slice of life that gets column-inch space, those precious few seconds or minutes on radio and TV, and real estate on websites popular or niche, all of it is held up to the same standard: if it doesn’t provide practical information, interrupt the status quo or raise questions for the benefit of the common good, then it doesn’t serve any real purpose apart from advancing the interests of a select few.
That system—the concerted effort to boost the public image of an individual or group—has become so entrenched in the society we live in today that it is an entire industry all its own. We’ve seen it happen time and again, or, at least, those of us aware of how our thoughts and actions are manipulated with what is fed to us by mass media, and, by extension, the machinations of the PR practitioners behind the scenes. Public relations is not evil per se (we are all essentially doing PR for the world’s most important client—ourselves) but people need to be educated on its subtle workings and idiosyncracies. It’s a useful skill to know how to separate the dreck from the golden—when information is misleading and when it is truly valuable.
Journalism vs PR
I mention all of this with more than a little trepidation because I, admittedly, have participated quite willingly in the media-PR dance for years. The rules of journalism are simple and clear: write the truth, be objective and fair, and never forget that the obligation is always to the reader or viewer. While I have attempted to uphold these tenets as best as I could throughout my over decade-long career, I cannot say that I have always been successful. Compromises must always be made, especially considering how media are so dependent on big business for advertising to support its existence, not to mention the livelihood of its staff. That is a fact that no one—not even the most straight-edged, principled reporter, editor or publisher—can dispute.
The ties that bind media and PR companies have become so close that it has sometimes become difficult, if not downright impossible, to tell where one ends and the other begins. The “pakiusap” (favor) has become industry practice, PR agents and reporters schmooze and inevitably exchange intel outside (sometimes during) official work hours, and it is not unheard of for content coming directly from PR agencies making it to print or the evening newscast virtually unchallenged. The reason is simple: relationships are too precious to be sacrificed to the altar of righteousness and professionalism. As a rule, people would much rather bend morals or personal ethics than risk alienating or offending a valuable client or colleague. Superficial connections initially forged through business dealings eventually progress into tighter bonds that can eventually cloud editorial judgment.
Recently, when Apple announced their new lineup of iPhones, I was once again amazed at how zealously the world’s biggest and most revered media agencies reported it. It was news, of course, but the degree to which many of the media paid attention to it—what was in essence nothing more than an announcement of new mobile phones—was oddly unsettling. Some reporters were practically breathless with anticipation, and many were practically frothing at the mouth in excitement. It made me think about how much traditional or legacy media (and perhaps moreso the army of online journalists aka bloggers) have completely bought into the Apple hype machine. Then I read this excellent Forbes piece and it articulated how I felt about the shifting media landscape and the increasing power of PR.
[Frederic Filloux] observed that “corporate journalism” is slowly overtaking “real journalism” as companies hire ex-reporters and editors, give them higher compensation, and order them to pump out articles that goes under the new category of “native advertising” or “branded content.” The companies pay for this content to be included in newspapers, magazines and websites as if it were real journalism, though increasingly it is just seeping into the news infrastructure without payment.
This passage particularly caught my attention:
Filloux recalled an Economist article from 2011 that noted public relations personnel vastly outnumber reporters now. The piece ran with the chart above in 2011, and you can be sure the weighting toward PR is even heavier now. He notes that while journalist staffing is shrinking dramatically in every mature market, “the public relation crowd is rising in a spectacular fashion” in two dimensions: Spinning of the news by seasoned ex-reporters who know what real reporters will bite on, and the growing inclination for PR firms, communication agencies and corporations themselves to build fully staffed newsrooms of their own.
I will not be surprised if the trend is similar here in the Philippines. As more and more journalists are lured into PR and corporate communications because of more lucrative remuneration, the tide will continue to shift towards corporate PR strategies with an unmistakable editorial thrust; the new hires already know what appeals to the public. Of course, the fact that they have already established relationships from within the media organization (and even have colleagues from competing titles or networks) is a bonus for the company and their clients.
The State of Criticism
A separate but related issue concerns valid criticism in mainstream media, something that has yet to gain traction in this country obsessed with pleasing people. From art, music, cinema, theater, dining and other related endeavors, much of what we refer to as “journalism” is nothing more than amplified encouragement; viewpoints that are always positive and meant to draw in more patrons and admirers. In other words, PR. Rarely does a brave soul express a legitimate gripe, intended to assist the artist, filmmaker, entrepreneur or chef better his or her craft. Rarer still is for that criticism to be received warmly. Any bad press and the knee-jerk reaction is to be defensive, initiate damage control, and minimize the fallout. How often do we read about professional criticism, say of Original Pilipino Music or OPM? There’s hardly any out there today. The prevailing notion, it seems, is that the industry needs all the help it can get. When an upstart band releases new material, music lovers are supposed to rally around them and tell them how good they are. Heaven forbid that anyone offer a dissenting opinion, as if everything that comes out of singers’ mouths and their guitarists’ speakers is applause-worthy. Newsflash: there are awful OPM bands out there, and music journalists should be allowed to say so without feeling like they betrayed the local music industry, or fearing reprisal, either from the bands themselves or their loyal fans. The same must be applied to every other field of artistic or professional endeavor.
Clearly much work needs to be done to empower journalists to do their job and to do it well, and correct the gross imbalance that favors the blatantly selfish objectives of big business and the PR companies they hire. I’m not saying Public Relations isn’t a legitimate and necessary arm of any company serious about managing its image and building its brand, and undoubtedly the PR business has had its share of triumphs that put the interests of the greater public to the fore. But from where I’ve been sitting the past 10 or so years, I believe it has encroached so much on what should be the domain of pure journalism and engaged in shameless arm-twisting to deliver “results” to their corporate masters that it has become worrisome, if not frightening. It’s time for journalism to take a stand and grow a pair if it wants to remain relevant and true to its raison d’etre. Journalists—actual, honest-to-goodness disciples of the profession—must learn to fight back and uphold the values of fairness, integrity, and commitment to the public, their ultimate boss. Otherwise we might as well give up and simply allow ourselves to be passive recipients of whatever garbage is shoved down our throats by the so-called PR experts.