Media Labels

Power, PR and Media Spin…

A while back ago I defined PR as “the management and creation of co-operative relationships, expansive, positive reputation and the understanding and interpretation of two-way communication” – a word-heavy definition based on plenty of theorists (Tench & Yeoman, J.G Hutton, Katz & Kahn, Berger, etc) essentially boiling down to persuasion. Whether convincing someone to attend an event, like a celebrity, buy a new brand, or forgive a politician, its principle purpose is to cause thought or behaviour. But in order to persuade the public one has to be able to reach them, and what we’re talking about here is the Media.

Lucky student that I am, I was able to attend a lecture the other day on the practice of good journalism and PR – and wasn’t that an eye opener…

In the UK alone we’ve near 5000 media outlets (mediauk.com), each existing because someone had the money to buy it (aside from the reasonably democratic BBC). Taking a macro view here, Mr Moneybags buys a media outlet, hires like-minded people and then chooses what to publish and how. And aside from rare external forces, what we’re absorbing in the news is essentially Mr Moneybags’ take on matters. Meaning as free as we may think information is in this day and age it’s subject to the control of a few. Worse still, with the rise of churnalism and advertorials it’s harder than ever to uncover the motives behind the information. Concerned newspaper writing about school dinners, or Jamie Oliver’s press team and a well written press release promoting interest in the latest TV show??

I realise that as a PR myself I should probably be ringing the other bell. It’s one thing to see an advert as an advert and know someone is trying to change your thoughts, but another to unsuspectingly absorb supposedly unbiased information. But is this really PR’s fault?

Nothing Personal, It’s Business…

As easy as it would be to blame the problem on the media, it appears to go a little deeper than that. Plain facts don’t sell papers and they certainly don’t maintain interest, but when stringing them together into one form or another those extra words have to come from somewhere. It’s an uphill struggle! One Kevin Marsh from the BBC commented that “bad news sells”, so if we’re the ones buying  then aren’t we getting the media that we deserve?

Did you do better?

As I said in the last blog, it’s pretty easy to criticise the system from the outside looking in, so let’s see how your judgement skills faired in comparison.

You all agreed that if knowledge of a pending health problem arose that the public must be informed, but likewise you all imposed your own individual control mechanisms to persuade the reaction of the public. Basically guys, you voted for spin.

Secondly we talked about a celebrity cheating rumour, and though most of you voiced that you couldn’t give a rat’s kabooty about celeb life, primarily your thoughts were on the potential profits/losses. Again, you chose current practice. According to Lincolnshire Echo Editor Steven Fletcher, there are so many complaints made about story inaccuracies that most nationals have a daily amendments column in their template. The simple equation used in the industry is often whether the paper would make more profit selling the rumour than they would lose in litigation if it were proved untrue. Harsh as it sounds the general consensus is that celebrities want the lime light – so who’s really exploiting who??

Finally we looked at the manipulation of information for a charity. Though all felt strongly that lying for a charity would be wrong, the general consensus was to present the information in a different light. Exactly what a PR would have done, but wasn’t it only the other blog that we discussed how half-truths were still “wrong”?

So if your favoured plan of action was always current practice, then why is it that there are so many complaints of the media handling it wrong? It appears that as well structured and guided that our moral compasses aim to be, right and wrong just aren’t black and white, and “doing it better” is a lot easier on paper than it is in practice.

Tom Scott’s creative solution to the lack of transparency in the media – http://www.tomscott.com/warnings/

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21 comments

  1. The media has control of our collective psyche, of that there is no doubt. I hold to the view that people are responsible for themselves, ultimately, and those that are manipulated are, in some (admittedly very small) part guilty of allowing themselves to be.
    But that’s not to say I don’t agree with your points. Indeed I feel thankful to have the BBC in this country, a news outlet relatively unbiased in its reporting is truly unique. One only has to watch US news programs (I’m thinking of one in particular) to see what untold havoc having an ulterior motive can have on the reliability of its news.
    I’d say PR is a fairly neutral force overall, although it is a power to be wielded responsibly to be sure. For every panic averted there is a dark secret covered up, for every carefully orchestrated step towards a better world there is a similar pace in the reverse.

    I don’t think it’s possible to control the machine our civilisation has constructed to keep itself in check. Not while we hold to free speech and freedom of the press.

    Would I like to see a media with a heart? Yes.
    Do I think it would ever work? Probably not.
    Unless it’s the BBC.

    1. Thanks for commenting :) – some interesting points you make there!

      I have to agree that regardless of the argument I’ve built here, I do believe that the public make their own choices – even before studying persuasive techniques it was pretty easy to spot a ‘sell’ when one reared its head. Granted they may not be as clear as they possibly should be, but the public chooses to take on what they will from the input. If they want to be convinced or rationalised, the PR will serve it’s “purpose”. If however they hold the anti-view then the PR would only serve to irritate them. At the end of the day, it’s all about the debate, weighing the pros and cons. Though PR may be persuasive, I think it’s far from manipulative and to describe it as such would be to undermine the public’s intelligence.

      As for the BBC, we are pretty lucky to have a media outlet that runs democratically, though as for “unbiased” – well, there are many that disagree (http://biased-bbc.com/). I think that’s the pinnacle of the problem though – it’s just bloody impossible to please everyone. A better guided moral compass would be welcomed I imagine, but whose morales to choose…

  2. I found what you wrote really interesting, especially the point regarding the bbc, ironically before i read this article i had been watching russell howards good news (not suggesting that its the best news source) but due to it being on the bbc most viewers agree that the information is trustworthy, and it just so happens that a point was raised claiming that if you hear of devastating news on channel 5 you instantly flick over to the bbc to check if its true.

    So possibly even though mass churnalism is apparent, the public are aware that the news you hear from “mr moneybags” needs to be taken with a pinch of salt? .

    1. Haha, first things first, I love that show!

      Thanks for joining in the discussion. Much like what I said to Mark above, we are a lucky country to have a reasonably unbiased media source. Though I agree that the general public are more aware than they make out, it only takes one horror story for the whole PR industry to be slandered for propaganda and manipulation. And sadly, there are plenty of horror stories!

  3. I was lucky enough to attend the lecture that you mentioned as well, one of the other stand out points for me was again made by Steven Fletcher when he expressed the view that all PRs have an agenda and although he didn’t differentiate between good and bad agendas. It got me thinking if the media doesn’t trust what we produce on behalf of our client, how on earth is the person on the street meant to trust what they are reading about our clients.

    1. Thanks for adding this Chloe, it’s exactly where I’m going with my next blog! Though PRs do follow a theme of Best Practice and ethics, if our job is to present our client in the best light how can we ever be truly unbiased, and how can we keep everyone happy?? Surely our wires must get crossed on occasion!

  4. Very interesting article here! Its strange that we percieve some news more ligitimate than others, for example we arent allowed to use tabaloids in essays or dissertations due to it being a known fact that some articles are altered.. but yet we still read! Alot like we know The Daily Mail are sexist on how they write their articles, and the general information they feed us tends to be misinformed.

    1. Thanks Rebecca. This was also mentioned in the lecture I attended, one of the speakers called it journalism-snobbery, stating that people appear to view the premier national papers as “real journalism” yet consider the smaller ones (which should surely be under less influence) a less reliable source.

      Haha, and still saying that, it’s the most read online paper in the UK! Worrying no?

    1. So goes the theory. At the end of the day business is business, but perhaps a little consideration towards the consequences that their misguided info could cause??

  5. The only people trust the BBC for news is because it isnt paid for through advertisements but through government money. Surely that will make the new biased against the elected government.. Regardless of their laws to stop any talk of political parties to be entered on chat shows on their channel.

    1. I agree there that it would make them bias to the elected government, but when considered against the other ‘bought’ options, it seems the lesser of 2 evils! After all, government is supposedly democratic with whoever is in power having the majority support of the country. Sadly it’s a always a case of how to please everyone!

  6. This is sssooooo true!!! To be fair though I’m like one of those people who love “bad news”, I’m always checking the Daily Mail :-S But in all honesty a great blog, I don’t hear a lot of people talking about the spectrum of validity that surrounds the media and PR industry. xx

    1. Yea, one of the speakers brought this up too. Basically bad news sells, it appears that we’re just not interested in hearing about good things happening to other people! I guess as our consumer habits have changed we can’t really complain if the media has followed suit. Is this the media that the public has chosen?

      - On a sidenote, got to say I’m equally a DailyMail addict. Though as Rachel commented above, take it with a pinch of salt lol!

  7. Well an interesting article but a bit naive about the BBC, particularly in light with all its current problems. They have a political biase which may not fit in with the current goverment, some of the people responsible for the programmes have a known hatred of the Tory party so no neutrality there and at times are completely at odds to the main stream focus on certian issues ie the Jimmy saville fiasco.
    All media are going to be influenced by their political or social beliefs so in order to get a good idea of whats really happening you can’t just rely on the “good old” BBC or The SUN for your look on the world, reading a cross section of various media outlets will at least provide a balanced picture in the end.

    1. Haha, I prefer “idealistic”! Agreed that they’ve certainly shyed away from the topic, but to a certain extent I can almost understand their hesitation. The coverage of Jimmy Saville of recent has completely wrecked his reputation, and I must admit that I almost feel sorry for him (not to mention his family) that he’s not able to defend himself. It’s a tricky path to tread, one that surely the victims feel is just, but one that leaves me with a slight tacky feeling! I imagine members of the BBC were quite close with him so it would be a double whammy to go in for the kill.

      And though the BBC don’t always hold true to the current political agenda, I feel that maybe they’re the lesser of too evils at least allowing the illusion of democracy and media “for the people”.

      As I’ve gone on to say in the next blog, the media whether ‘good or bad’ is ultimately a business that needs to make money. And so though always likely to hold bias in one form or another, they’re ultimately providing the news that we want to hear. Like you say, people really do need to take a broader reference for their sources in order to get that balanced picture – before that point, well one can’t really complain for their own naivety!

  8. It’s nothing I’d really think of, but you have put it into perspective for me. A very interesting piece! I do only tend to read or listen to information which I know will give a genuine story as you never know these days. However, like the last blog you posted, even the most reliable sources do occasionally get altered or don’t tell the full truth to reduce public panic or for political reasons. I agree with the above comment, a broad read will most likely reveal good overall information.

    1. Thanks for your input Megan :). It is hard to separate the genuine from the ‘spun’, but as I’ve said to Anonymous above and continued in my next blog – it really is all about getting that broader perspective. One of the things that has really irritated me throughout this blog series is that people are so quick to place blame! Gathering all their views from one source and then pleading ignorance when it (unsurprisingly) turns out that they held a bias one way or another!

      There’s a hilarious video on The Daily Mail that really hammers this point home : http://pravings.com/2012/11/24/the-daily-mail-song/

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