He knows he has to live with it, but Tom Hedley can’t help feeling scared about the shifting balance of power between journalism and public relations.
Fast-forward from an uncomfortable relationship over the last century, public relations now manifests itself in almost every journalistic publication in the millennial generation, especially pertinent in the print sector. More so, print journalism has had an equally sore relationship with its readership, a rapport that has broken down through breakthrough technology (you know, that thing called the Internet) and diverging consumer habits.
Journalism is no longer PR’s advisory, and has pretty much admitted defeat. We’ve witnessed journalism thrive, or at least revive financially through an insurgence of PR influence; they say money doesn’t equal happiness, but then again, neither does being unemployed. The publishing tightrope is especially tricky in these unusually uncertain times: too many hard-hitting facts means your content is ‘too hard’ and you’re out of business; complete subservience to revenue streams and you’re nothing more than putty in the hands of PR.
The digital industry hasn’t got off scot-free either. PR has flexed its muscle here as elsewhere.
One of the ways in which PR and journalism have rekindled their relationship is by extending the practice of paid-for editorials. By no means entirely new, they used to stick out a mile (and people would pass right over them); but now, carefully threaded between your weekly column and showbiz gossip, the ‘advertorial’ has become the epitome of ingenious advertising. At first glance, nothing looks out of place. Either as a written piece or video short, the advert is designed to look native, natural and enriching to the publication. The best example is BBC’s Good Food, which now includes extensive collection of Co-op-augmented foodie guides. Although brilliantly crafted, and actually rather informative, there’s a catch: the perfect cheeseboard you are encouraged to create, is comprised of entirely of cheeses purchased exclusively at the Co-op.
I now know that the three month cave-aged Wookey Hole Cheddar has a deep complex flavour (the moisture levels and temperature in the caves are particularly conducive to it). I also know where to buy it, and I am even less likely to show an interest in other cave-matured cheeses which I might possibly have purchased some place else.
You get what you click on; and there’s a price to be paid.
You Tube is another prime site for viewing the changing balance of forces between PR and journalism. Thousands of YouTube personalities across the Internet are top targets for advertorial injections. ‘YouTubers’ are the millennial celebrities, and a generation of adoring fans tune in to watch, and be influenced by, their videos every day. Product placement seems to be the biggest hit. Top 10 product lists littered across the Internet are more than often rigged, and reviews can be heavily skewed by commercial obligations.
A particular example involves YouTube personality ‘Anna Akana’. After being accused of ‘selling out’ to advertising brands such as Audible and clothing line Ghost and Stars, she received negative criticism – sometimes amounting to death threats. Her response was as follows:
“If a sell out is someone who puts high value on their work, then sure. If a sell out is someone who recognizes that money frees up your time to work on non-paying passion projects, awesome! If a sell out is someone who loves what they do, but also wants to make a living at it, then yeah, call her a sell out.”
It would be hypocritical to finger point, though. At one stage or another I bet every professional journalist has relaxed his or her moral and ethical commitments to the public in order to stay in the job.
The ‘truth’ is no longer important in millennial media. The Guardian estimates that 75% of entertainment stories, and 50 to 80% of news and business stories emanate from public relations – which doesn’t mean they are not true, but it does mean these are truths constructed and disseminated for promotional purposes. Other studies put the figure as high as 98%; the stats are overwhelming.
The real ‘truth’ is that almost everything you read, and every opinion you formulate, is partly because it was designed to be so. Of course, journalism by design isn’t a new phenomenon. From early Nazi propaganda to the political influence of the red tops, the spirit of editorial independence – supposedly without fear or favour, has always been used and abused.
It seems as though public relations will live on, with or without journalism. But it is scary to think that in 20 years’ time a publication you now trust for its editorial independence could be not much more than a saturated Argos catalogue.
Journalism loves to hate PR. It has become the norm in the media to knock us, whether for spinning, controlling access, approving copy, or protecting clients at the …