So who’s afraid of the PR professional?

The Sunday Times of India carried an interesting story over the weekend. Headlined, “Elections ahead, netas call in spin doctors for facelift”; the story is a roundup of anecdotal instances of parties such as the BSP, Congress and the BJD seeking out PR agencies for effective media management.

Then comes the zinger, slipped in the middle of the story is a line that reads: “Until recently, the relationship between politicians and journalists was organic. The trust and the ease had developed over years of interaction without any intermediaries. But today this connection is being mediated by PR professionals.”

It’s an unusual statement to carry on the front page of a newspaper. Rarely do you find newspapers and television channels stating that the relationship between journalists and their sources is being mediated by PR professionals.

While it tends to be a major bugbear for many reporters who refuse to interact with PR professionals, there are also an increasing number of journalists who take press release copy and Q and A’s verbatim from PR and depend entirely on PR professionals to arrange the story.

Even as the PR function develops and becomes integral to public communications per se, journalism is being threatened by the rise of digital journalism, consumer driven journalism and the consumption of news as entertainment.

One of the reasons why Times Now is India’s leading English language channel is its reality show format of news. If you look at ‘News Hour’ it is not much different from ‘Bigg Boss’, with Arnab Goswami presiding over the ‘House’. There is little balanced journalism on the show, but it is what people want to watch.

With challenges to the standards of journalism and ever rising demand for content, it is only natural that the PR function will expand to become a facilitator between journalists and stories.

It’s up to journalists to maintain access to their sources. If you are determined to do so, no ‘mediator’ can really stop you, especially if it helps the story.

There are strong issues of ‘selective news’, but the Indian consumer is no fool, he understands a blatant pitch when he sees it.

While PR should understand that badly planned, obviously slanted stories will not work, media companies need to invest a little in training and help journalists to acquire the skills they need to cope with the changing world of journalism.

At the end of the day PR professionals are moving toward becoming curators of good content rather than PR pros pushing just one point of view. That’s how they should position themselves.

I will conclude with two stories from my experience as both a TV journalist and a PR professional. As a young reporter with ‘India Business Report’, BBC’s first locally produced show in India; I was shooting at a float glass factory in Gujarat. After shooting till midnight, the American manager of the factory suddenly announced that we couldn’t leave until we signed a declaration stating that we would use only the footage approved by the company and that he would have to preview all the footage. So we sat until 3 AM showing him the footage. On top of that we had a 6 AM departure time for the ship breaking yards of Alang. I won’t name the agency involved but they were on our black list for quite a while for their poor homework. If we had known the footage had to be previewed we would have planned accordingly, as we were on a very tight schedule that involved shooting at IIM Ahmedabad and the bidi factories in Gujarat as well shipbreaking at Alang.

At the same time, there were many great stories which were only possible with the help of a PR agency, including a memorable interview with Jeffrey Sachs and Kumaramangalam Birla in the 90s.

As a PR professional I once had to make an entire shoot schedule for a reporter with a leading English language channel, complete with case studies and talking heads. The reporter (the story was on TB) did not even want to meet the case studies beforehand to preselect which ones she wanted as per her story. It was an unusual experience for me, as at Network 18 where I was trained I was required to do a researched shooting script and synopsis before I shot anything. (Just want to clarify that the reporter I am talking about is not from the Network 18 group).

My point is there are good and bad stories on both sides. There is no need to be afraid of the PR professional!

Paarul Chand

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