#TheInterlocker: Does the PR industry value media ethics?
by Emma King (@emmainsa) We often say that we value the role that a free and robust media plays in a democracy, yet do we in the PR and comms industry? How do we install that sense of value in our teams and why does it sometimes seem to be lacking in the first place? How do we find the balance between doing our jobs of influencing an editorial media agenda while upholding these values and ethics? Palesa Madumo, James Wilson and I respond.
Communication professionals have developed a profound obsession with fake news — but do we even know how much of the problem we might be responsible for?
As communication and reputation management professionals, content is an important part of achieving our goals on behalf of our clients. More often than not, we’re quite passionate about the work we do and buy into whatever information our clients provide us with as extension of their team. We place a great deal of emphasis on getting approvals and go-aheads from clients before we proceed in sharing any of their information with stakeholders, especially media, and no matter what level you may be at as a consultant, proceeding without approval is a communication cardinal sin you will not forget.
However, there’s another level of socially responsible engagement with our work that we quite often, and perhaps even subconsciously, leave up to the journalist; after all, the age-old perception of their role is known and there is an expectation that whatever they publish is objective and balanced.
If we’re honest, how many consultancies have entrenched the culture of fact-checking beyond grammar, spelling and client relevance? How often do we train for truth-seeking within our teams and how confident are we as leaders that there’s no fear when it comes to challenging our clients on these types of issues, if and when necessary?
The bigger and even scarier question is: does everyone in every consultancy understand or recognise bias or stereotyping in all the forms it presents itself? Or do we train for strong headlines, spellchecked documents and building WhatsApp relationships with our media partners who, in turn, will hopefully (fingers crossed) churn up the content they are fed and, in the end, publish all the wonderful things we’ve said about our clients?
Finding the balance between doing our jobs of influencing an editorial media agenda while upholding the values and ethics of a free media landscape has never been as important as it is today as we navigate a complex global media landscape.
To begin with, if you don’t already have diversity assessment triggers in place within your teams, then run and put them in place right now. Next, set up a process that first creates a culture of reading to understand, knowing the media landscape and possible owner-driven agendas across the continent and the globe, and the role your team has in creating responsible content that goes beyond the job of positioning your clients.
It’s estimated that the global media pool has shrunk by 50% over the last 10 years and locally we’ve witnessed how covid-19’s sped up the devastating demise of our own media houses. What this means to me, as a communications consultant, is that targeting the right media with credible content is more important than ever. Our jobs are harder than ever. Today, there are less credible influencers, fewer sub editors to fact check and edit — and limited journalists who’re subject-matter experts. South Africans are jaded by unreliable news sources — let alone fake news. The battle is real for all South Africans to discern which outlets to trust and which to take with a pinch of salt.
So, where does this leave PR agencies, clients and media?
It’s true that an inexperienced consultant might take a brief, often not questioning the validity or newsworthiness of the client’s content. Unquestioningly, rolling out un-newsworthy content will do more damage than good to a brand or business in the long run. At its core, PR’s function is to credibly promote the image and reputation of a business, product or individual. A few quick un-strategic media wins may work in the short term — but will backfire in the long-run.
Authentic, purpose-led communications is the way forward. Yes, purpose is the latest catchphrase but, at its core, authentic purpose is about doing what is right — and linking back to what you stand for as an organisation. Brands will be measured on whether they’re on the right side of social change or not — and they need good PR agencies to take them on this journey. Credible media and authentic purpose-led PR is a symbiotic relationship that at best support and rely on each another.
James Wilson is managing director, Africa network & global clients, at WE Communications
There’s no question of the importance investigative journalism has played in uncovering state capture — and more — in South Africa, and I hope I speak for more than just myself when I say that I believe that a free and fair media is a vital cornerstone of our democracy. But do I speak for the whole PR industry when I say that?
What I’ve realised is that the concept of “ethics” can be a murky one — something that one person believes is a clear issue in terms of right and wrong may be murky for someone else.
In the PR and comms industry, there are perhaps two such murky areas.
The first is that of ‘influencing’ the media. Our role is to assist our clients, and the brands and business we work with, to build relationships and communicate with media outlets and journalists. At a basic level, this is simply advising and helping them to take their information and their stories and package it in a way that’s helpful, useful and relevant to these audiences — an interesting interview with an expert, for example, or an inside look at how a business runs. Where this gets murky is when the spin-doctoring starts: when this expertise is used to obscure, or hide the truth, or place false information in the public domain.
The second is that when this ‘influencing’ takes a more sinister turn, a recent example being the influence wielded by the now-defunct Bell Pottinger, allegedly on behalf of a politically connected few. The manipulating of the media and social media platforms to drive public perception to benefit an individual (or individuals) hit the headlines when it was uncovered, but it’s not new, and it’s not unique. For decades, the expertise of communications professionals has been used to sway opinion, drive division and divert attention, generally to benefit those with the largest chequebooks.
So, where does that leave us?
In any industry — from PR and communications to those who supply PPE in time of pandemics — there are some who do what they feel is the generally right thing, and some who’re out for the quick buck.
I’ve turned down many a client or piece of business over the years because I wasn’t comfortable with what they did or what they stood for. Plus, I believe, I’ve pushed back if I’ve ever been in a situation where I’ve been asked to spin a story or fabricate or obscure the truth.
But perhaps the line that can’t be overstepped is different for everyone. Perhaps, for some, the lure of the dollar signs is too enticing, and what’s wrong for some is right for others. We need to make that choice ourselves as to which side of history we want to stand on and, as business leaders, instil those values in the teams that we build and mentor. For me, this means doing all we can to support a vibrant, free and independent media, and ensuring that the stories that we create, and the work that we do, supports and builds these media outlets, rather than assists in breaking them down.
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Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the founder and managing director of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She specialises in communications strategy, consumer and brand marketing and PR, corporate comms, crisis and issues management, and writing. Emma contributes the resurrected column, “#TheInterlocker”, in which she picks a PR/comms-related subject and invites other marketers and PRs to discuss, to MarkLives.com.
This MarkLives #CoronavirusSA special section contains coverage of how the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and its resultant disease, covid-19, is affecting the advertising, marketing and related industries in South Africa and other parts of Africa, and how we are responding. Updates may be sent to us via our contact form or the email address published on our Contact Us page. Opinion pieces/guest columns must be exclusive.