Why PR must earn respect from journalists

Recently, Arnab Goswami’s new channel ‘Republic ‘put out the following tweet about what kind of journalism it stands for. Not surprisingly, PR professionals were in the firing line:

 The tweet sparked off a heated debate in specialised PR WhatsApp groups such as ‘One Source’ and ‘IPRF’.

Senior communications consultant, Anup Sharma believes that it’s not so much the use of the word ‘PR agent’ that is a problem, but the context in which it was used that seems to encourage the view that PR professionals are ‘fixing the news.’

Questions PR pros must ask themselves
Do I respect what I do?
Do I know my work well?
Am I bringing value to my stakeholders (including media).
Rahul Rakesh, senior PR professional

Sharma points out that by that logic the late Pramod Mahajan, who was such a strong communicator for the BJP or any other party spokesperson who appears on TV shows are as much ‘agents’ of the cause they represent. Sharma opines that advertisers too, in that sense are brand ‘agents’. And journalists ‘news agents’.

Senior PR professional Rahul Rakesh, who is very active on various PR forums says, “My Initial response ‎to such remarks is always- Ah! Not again. And then I get normal like "Please forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are saying ". However, I was taken by surprise by this tweet of Republic as it was somewhat not expected from them. Such tweets go on to prove one point- we are in a thankless profession. Our work, efforts mostly go unnoticed.”

Subhash Pais, founder and business head, i9 Communications sees the issue differently, as an obvious marketing position for the ‘Republic’. Says Pais, “I saw the tweet put out by Arnab and did not have any reaction. My $0.02 on the tweet were that Arnab was probably trying to draw attention to the tweet and was trying to bait a few people. He is starting a new venture and wants to be as much in the face of people and top of their mind as possible. Outrage was his currency at ‘Times Now’ and outrage is what he will continue to manufacture. I wouldn't be too bothered by the tweet.”

Murali, from the Tamil Nadu based ‘The PR Workshop’ agrees that one shouldn’t react to the tweet. He says, “Prima facie, I believe the PR fraternity has misunderstood what Arnab may have actually meant – he may be suggesting that his channel, ‘Republic’ is not looking at journalists who have been in the past acting as PR agents, be it for the political or business class. This has got misconstrued to be an attack on public relations professionals, given the tone and tenor of the tweet.”

Adds Murali bluntly, “Like it or not, we PR professionals are agents of communication for our clients – the client could be a corporate, a celebrity or just about anyone. It is our responsibility to hold the brief for them, and build an image and get media coverage, irrespective of the odds that may be stacked against us in some cases. Just because some prominent media face accuses the profession, it no way will affect our credibility, if we are wedded to the fundamental principles and ethics which bind us.”

Others have a few sharp questions for journalists.

B N Kumar, executive director, Concept PR & national president, Public Relations Council of India (PRCI) says that, “As someone who has come to PR from journalism (and continues to write), I can say with authority that journalists do need PR help for fling stories and getting the right contacts. In fact, there is no need to treat PR professionals with such scorn. We PR people only facilitate journalists get information, assist them verifying facts and thus contribute to avoiding publication of wrong news or even lies.”

A question of respect: PR vs. Journos

Finally, it boils down to one critical question. Respect, at the end of the day, must be earned. Says Pais, “I think we also need to closely look at ourselves and ask how we conduct ourselves. PR exists in the shadows, it’s a decent sized industry with a large number of people drawing employment and yet we are nowhere near to being anywhere close to organized, neither do we have any sort of a code of conduct. We roam around media persons like touts peddling our wares. Can't criticize others for not perceiving us right when we don't exactly conduct our own affairs with the right set of ethics.”

Sharma also agrees that sometimes PR professionals can act like an “Unbrand Ambassador”. He says, “PR consultants must move from being paper pushers to PR consultants. PR professionals contribute a lot to the stories that emerge. But, at press events this is not visible. Instead of interacting with the journalists, many PR professionals are busy with logistics. So, the image the journalist goes back with, is that of a person who hands them their press kit and organised their car.”

But many believe this is changing. Nitin Mantri, president, PRCAI agrees that “The PR industry has grappled with a perception problem for a while now. However, the nature of the profession is changing across the world. CEOs are getting more concerned about managing reputational risks as a company’s reputation is its most fragile asset. The profile of our external stakeholders has also dramatically changed to include the government, analysts, civil society, industry experts, bloggers, media, besides consumers. Communication strategists are supporting business objectives and successfully driving campaigns that leverage earned, owned, paid, shared and promoted media in all channels.”

Is the PR-Journo relationship changing?

Sharma feels that due to the crisis that many publications are facing and cutting down editions and journalists, journalists are seeing PR pros differently.

PR professionals at times do not set ethical boundaries of engagement with other parties which position them as 'agents' rather than as 'consultants' or 'partners'. PR professionals, many of them do not maintain a professional distance from the media which is very unhealthy to the branding of the profession.
Subhash Pais, i9 Communications

Pais agrees that, “I also think the last few years has brought media and PR closer together. I do think media persons realize that PR pros can be capable partners and facilitators and I think PR professionals are fast recognizing the need to build trust with the media I think the dynamic has positively changed over the last few years and I think that is set to continue.”  

Commenting on the quality of journalists, Pais says that, “, I do come across the odd quack but that is a once in a blue moon phenomena. I understand my colleagues who work with me in my firm have faced all kinds; media persons who lie and misrepresent to ones who harass women with lewd text messages (Yes, there are those in journalism too) but for the most part we come across people who are very professional and want to do a good job.”

Pais also says that, “On the other hand, it would do us and individual firms no harm to put in a code of conduct in place for its people in terms of what is expected from them when they deal with media. I think this will ensure that a lot of strife and bad blood that is currently existent between the media and the PR industry is addressed in a professional manner. Right now, most firms just have a senior professional teaching the ropes without any checks and balances from above. That doesn't inspire much confidence for the industry.”

No doubt issues exist on both sides of the spectrum between hacks and flacks and there is much behind the scenes take downs of each other. But, for the first-time PR professionals in India are making public their thoughts on how they are perceived.

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