Journalism vs. PR

Just came back from a nice lunch at KABB, in Shanghai’s people-watching mecca Xintiandi. Hose Mitamura (author of China s Environment 2008, available from Amazon) and I discussed the differences between journalism and PR.

As my staff constantly reminds me, I tend to believe passionately in whatever I heard most recently. In my case, this is Law and Order — I was watching reruns of the show the night before.

(I’m not going to say how, except to mention that I was shocked — SHOCKED — to find that there were illegally uploaded TV shows available through Don’t people know there is intellectual property violation going on? The horror!)

Anyway, on Law and Order — and in every show that depicts an American-style legal system — every legal case has two sides. There’s the prosecutor, who tries to make the accused look as bad and guilty as possible, within the constraints of the law. And there’s the defense attorney, who tries to make the accused look all harmless and innocent. There’s a judge there, to keep things moving along, and the jury makes the final decision.

That’s the media landscape in a nutshell as well.

The journalists try to print as much of the scandal and wrong-doing that they can dig up. Sure, they present ordinary facts as well — so do prosecutors. But we all know what we’re there for — the blood and gore.

The PR guys try to make their clients seem sweet and wholesome. They also present some actual facts, but these are shaded in such a way as to tell the most flattering story about their client.

Sure, a good defense attorney will advise a client not to commit the crime in the first place, or, if the crimes are ongoing, to stop as quickly as possible. But once the crime is done, the defense lawyer is supposed to go all out to get the client off — whether or not the client deserves to be punished.

So, a PR agency will usually advise clients to clean up their acts. But, barring that, the PR folks will do all they can to keep the bad acts from being publicized — or, if they’re already out, to put the best possible spin on them.

In this analogy, the jury is the reading public and the judges are the libel courts.

I don’t mind working with PR people. They perform a useful public function. They get me in touch with company executives. They hook me up with customers, and send me background information and research reports. They suggest story ideas.

I regularly read PR blogs. One of my favorites is the China Law Blog. Yes, it’s a PR vehicle for the law firm that sponsors it, Harris & Moure. But there’s excellent information in the blog as well. PR Newswire is also a great source of information, sources, and story ideas, and they have a Chinese version through a partnership with Xinhua. Their Profnet service is by far the best way to find sources. I occasionally browse through their database of experts, but, more often, I post queries about articles I’m working on. Especially for tech-related stories, this is a great way to immediately get interviews with high-ranking executives at major companies, since their PR agents subscribe to these queries.

So I love PR guys. I used to be married to one. In fact, my ex still works in PR.

Would I want to be a PR guy? Be forced to say nice things about people? Never. Shoot me first.

Fortunately, PR work and journalism require such different personality skills, such different characters, such different approaches to morality, that there doesn’t really have to be a conflict on a personal level. I can’t do their jobs — they can’t do my job. And we wouldn’t want to.

It’s the old “Jack Sprat could eat no fat, his wife could eat no lean” thing.

I believe that the greater good is that which benefits society as a whole. This means, exposing corruption and injustice whenever it happens. If a few innocent people get hurt in the process — well, that’s just too bad for them.

Other people believe in the rights of the individual. Better that a hundred guilty people go free than an innocent guy go to jail. This is also a noble sentiment. In fact, if I was a lawyer, I might be torn about deciding whether I wanted to be a defense attorney or a prosecutor.

One of the things that appeals to be most about journalism — and about prosecutors — is that we are heroes. The mafia lawyers and the corporate attorneys — they make the big money, but they don’t get much respect from the public.

With PR, it’s the same way. Sure, they have better haircuts. And better clothes. And better food at their parties. Their drinks are more expensive, and their cars are newer and flashier. But who really respects them?

The worst that can be said of good journalists is that in our zeal, we sometimes step over the line.

That brings me to the final parallel between PR and law. In the legal profession, the worst that can happen is for money to cross the line between the defense and prosecution. Whether it’s the defense attorney paying off the prosecutor, or the prosecutor paying off the defense, if there’s an exchange of cash there’s corruption going on and the minute it comes to light the careers of everyone involved are over, and the respective organizations will suffer major PR blows.

On the media side, any exchange of money or favors between PR folks and journalists — regardless of the direction that the money flows — is a scandal. The bigger the money, of course, the bigger the scandal. If someone buys me lunch to pick my brain, no problem. If we’re discussing possible stories over dinner, however, them I’m picking up at least half the tab.

I’ve worked for many media organizations. I’ve never seen a case in which they paid money to sources, or in which they accepted payments for PR people in return for editorial coverage. There was one case, of a very small-circulation local business magazine, that preferred to quote advertisers in stories and write flattering pieces about them.

In the competitive American media climate, it is hard for publications like that to become successful — after all, who wants to pay for articles that are composed exclusively of advertising blather? Especially if there’s an alternative publication that gives you the straight scoop, the solid dope, the inside dirt. Which one of us wouldn’t take the dirt over the puff piece any time?

Since, over time, the average media climate tends to become more competitive, not less, I would guess that the demarcation line between PR and journalism will become increasingly clear in every region.

And this means that people who are just getting into the media field should be clear from the start about which side of the line they want to be on.

There’s nothing wrong with being either a journalist or a PR guy. But the folks who try to cross the lines are vilified by both sides, and by the reading public.

When the public gets upset at either PR people or journalists it’s when they confuse the functions that the two groups serve. At various times, the PR guys are the bad ones because they’re trying to
make evil corporations look good. At other times, the journalists are the bad guys because they’re only looking for bad news.

In some emerging markets, where the media and PR functions are conflated together, the end results can be extremely messy. But I believe that over time, as the two functions are separated due to market pressures — as well as increasing professionalism on both sides — this situation will be resolved as well.

It pays to be clean.

In Shanghai,


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