Half-truth business

4 Feb

Peter Wilby writes this in his Media Guardian commentary on Alastair Campbell’s Cudlipp memorial lecture:

Most journalists at least aspire to some version of the truth. Public relations, at best, aspires to a partial truth and, at worst, to outright fabrication.

Let’s acknowledge the large grain of truth here: Kevin Moloney describes the in-built bias in public relations as ‘hemispheric communications’ because of the tendency always to focus on the sunny side, not the dark side.

But Wilby’s language is nuanced. Which would you prefer: ‘some version of the truth’ or ‘a partial truth’? There’s little to choose, but at least, with public relations the perspective is (or should be) obvious and declared.

4 Responses to “Half-truth business”

  1. ourman 04/02/2008 at 11:35 am #

    I always reckon that PR is the truth but isn’t always “all the truth”.
    In a 10 year PR career in both public and private sector I have not once released anything that was untrue.
    My experience is that it is normall the PR expert who insists on the truth – and tries to mitigate it as required.

  2. Ben Matthews 04/02/2008 at 11:50 am #

    Hi Richard,
    PR practitioners should always be communicating the truth, and not always the sunny side. Take SocGen’s crisis communications this week – it was inherently all bad news and, on the whole, the truth. So far, as far as I have seen, they have been praised for the way they have handled the situation, in no large part due to their PROs.
    Transparency is an issue you rightly touched on, and I hope I am not being too harsh in saying that Wilby’s commentary is a transparent scapegoating of the PR industry.

  3. Chris Marritt 04/02/2008 at 12:54 pm #

    I agree with Ben – PR is by no means always about a partial truth, but that was not my main point.
    Firstly, to say that journalists “aspire” to “some version of the truth” is damning them all by faint praise. “Some version of the truth” should be an absolute basic minimum – the level they are forced to settle for when nothing better is possible – not an aspiration.
    Furthermore the quote compares apples and pears: journalists (free-thinking individuals) and PR (an industry).
    The reason he does so is clear, I think.
    Could he have written, hand on heart, that the news industry as a whole aspires to tell the truth at all times? Furthermore, to tell something greater than a “partial truth”?

  4. Judy Gombita 04/02/2008 at 3:39 pm #

    Kathy English, the public editor of the Toronto Star newspaper, had an interesting column in the Sunday edition, From coloured ink to multimedia
    Even before I read your post, Richard, I noted two paragraphs relating to ethical journalism:
    “Readers come to newspaper websites largely because of the credibility factor. As NAA president John Sturm, says, “It’s clear customers recognize newspapers as their trusted source of information in an increasingly digital world.”
    Maintaining your trust as we redefine journalism demands that we uphold the traditional core values of ethical journalism. Truth and accuracy, fairness and balance, transparency and accountability, matter as much to audio and video online, as to the words and photos published in the newspaper.”
    And Ira Basen http://http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/spincycles
    had argued much of the same thing when he commented on Toni Muzi Falconi’s post, Objectivity in public relations and journalism: essential for the credibility of both professions, and for different reasons
    “…I remain uncomfortable with the use of the word “objectivity”, even in a relative sense, when describing the work that PR people do. And at a time when the word is falling out of favour in journalistic circles (to be replaced with words like “fairness” and “balance”), I’m not sure why PR people would want to grab this falling torch. Journalists don’t expect PR people to be objective, but as Toni says, “so what”? Journalists expect the information they get from PR practitioners to be accurate and honest, but they also understand that the PR person is a paid advocate, and has a vested interest in how the story ultimately gets written. Can this really be squared with “objectivity”?
    No self-respecting journalist needs to be told by a PR person that they should be making more phone calls, and though suggestions are always welcome, they shouldn’t be relying on PR people to tell them who they should be calling. The failure to vigorously pursue different sides of a story (which happens far too often) is a failure of journalism that neither can nor should be corrected by public relations. As one senior PR executive in Toronto told me in an interview, “you don’t have to just buy what I say. You can talk to whomever you want. My job is to make the story from my perspective as clear as possible, and that’s really it. It’s not my job to say the story begins and ends with what I’ve told you. It’s not my fault if you don’t make another phone call”. Most journalists understand and accept this as the basis of their relationship with PR. The attempt by public relations to improve its relationship with journalists or other “interlocutors” by appearing more “objective” is probably unnecessary, and likely doomed to failure.”
    Peter Wilby seems a lot less enamoured of the work done by public relations practitioners than Ira Basen!

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