Would we have learned about the 100+ safety violations at Upper Big Branch this year alone? Would we know about Massey’s environmental record in strip mining? Would the CEO’s arrogance toward the media have been highlighted? Probably not. But thanks to an independent news media, we’re getting a more balanced story.
Now, imagine a world where the mainstream media no longer have enough journalists to cover the news? Yeah. I know. We’re already there, aren’t we? But stick with me.
Ike suggests that the future of journalism will depend on an army of “embedded reporters” who operate from within companies and organizations and are paid by those companies and organizations. If you know your PR history, you’ll recognize this “new role” as an old one known as “journalist in residence.” It dates back a century, to the days of Ivy Lee.
As the mainstream media continue to slash operating costs, there’s not a news organization on earth with the resources to cover every important event. Many already use press releases as primary sources, as there just isn’t time to examine every angle. PR materials, well prepared, are expedient. They fill the news hole.
Depending on whose study you believe, as much as 75% of news content is placed or influenced by public relations, and it’s been that way for a good while. But as news organizations continue to fire the editors who vet content, more of what PR produces goes mainstream without fact-checking or verification.
Ike’s vision for the future of news includes in-house corporate storytellers in the role of journalist. The media outlets themselves would become “aggregators and arbiters” of the content these embeds produce.
These new gatekeepers, much like editors of the past, will learn quickly which content providers they can trust and which they cannot. They will reject news that doesn’t meet the tests of accuracy and neutrality. But no matter how tough the standards, these aggregators will arrange and distribute news, they will not produce it.
We can only hope that, if Ike’s scenario becomes reality, these gatekeeper/aggregators are seasoned, uncompromising news veterans. But will that be enough to ensure the veracity of the news they distribute? Can the watchdog function of media operate in such a system?
Who will report the news? The ONLY group of communicators poised to fill this gigantic 24-7 news hole are public relations people. No one else has the resources. If that doesn’t scare you, you’re not thinking clearly. The news media are the guardians of democracy and the arbiters of truth — at least in theory. PR people, by definition, are advocates for clients and employers. They have a stake in the outcome.
You should hear at least some of this in Ike’s own words, and I urge you to take the time to read his post.
The embeds of the future will work for the company, and be paid by the company to provide news about the company in a multitude of formats. Print, newsletter, video, blog, podcast, moving billboards, tattoos — whatever it takes. Because the bits and pieces of Corporate America that have a story to tell will still have their stories – just no ready outlets.
How is this different than what you have today? Surely there are corporate PR departments and external agencies already doing these things, right?
What is required is an internal producer who writes in external voice — like the neutral point-of-view so often described by Wikipedia. People can smell marketing and propaganda coming around the corner, and they know when the pitches and puff pieces are missing that edge of neutrality. An accurate and fair piece is accurate and fair, no matter who writes it.
Can PR fill “embedded reporter” role? A good many of us are trained at news gathering, writing and editing. We know how to create headlines that pop and leads that intrigue. Some of us even hold dear the journalistic values of truth, accuracy, fairness and balance.
But will the CEO pay us to tell a truly balanced story?
Let’s go back to Montcoal, W. Va. Do you think Massey Energy CEO Don “Get outta my face” Blankenship would allow his staff to report objectively on the safety record of Upper Big Branch? Would you — could you — trust an embedded reporter from Massey?
If embedded reporters are, indeed, “the future of journalism,” ethics and transparency must be our guiding principles – trumping all others. The role of “advocacy” must disappear, and that takes us into uncharted waters, and toward an entirely new model of PR practice that extends beyond Grunig’s symmetrical notions.
See why I’m skeptical? It’s the fox guarding the hen house. It can work, but first you gotta convert the fox into a vegetarian — and that’s not in his DNA.
Please take the time to read Ike’s essay. I hope it haunts you as it did me. And, Ike, I salute you for opening what I hope will be a long discussion that reaches beyond the echo chamber of the PR blogs.
If Ike’s predictions on “the future of journalism” come to pass, we must begin to rearrange the role and the priorities of public relations. And we must begin to view the ethics of fairness and transparency not just as values, but as imperatives.