Ethics? From a PR company dealing with the media? That’s a bit of a non-starter, isn’t it?
The reputation of the press has gone through an unprecedented battering recently, it’s true.
Fear not. I shan’t be citing the innocence of Rebekah Brooks as proof that it was all trumped up. Many of us working in the media throughout that trial found it unthinkable that she didn’t know what was going on in the newsroom on her watch (in our opinions, of course). Don’t suppose she was in the box to answer charges of being an incompetent editor though. Last time I checked that wasn’t illegal – in fact that status has been useful to quite a few people on both ‘sides’ over the years.
The whole phone tapping debacle has done a terrible disservice to the press, even the regional press. Attitudes changed and it’s naïve to suggest that won’t be permanent.
I remember as a young reporter being welcomed pretty much everywhere as a representative of the local newspaper. I found it to be the case on the weeklies in Devon and Somerset, and equally so when I worked on the South Wales Evening Post. They were pleased when you arrived at their door. The only real exception was when people spotted you at their trials in court or when you were uncovering wrongs – it was pretty ordinary for the regional press to carry out investigations until about a decade ago. It still happens I am sure on some of the bigger titles, but it really is the exception these days.
But as Leveson and the phone-tapping trials ground on, the tone of comments from the public changed. Admittedly some of that was down to the virtual nature of the relationship. Many people say things online that they wouldn’t dream of saying to somebody’s face. But there has been a definite shift, with reporters having to endure more slurs and sarcasm – and Outraged of Falmouth telling us that their shenanigans, whatever they be, do not constitute a story – indeed, the journalist is scum (a particular favourite) for even asking about it.
By its nature, though, the fourth estate will make enemies and upset people sometimes. If it doesn’t, it ceases to exist.
But you know what? Regional journalists on the whole work really hard for pretty low wages, and they generally do it with integrity and because they want to make a difference.
There has been another development in the past decade which is also relevant – that of shrinking staff numbers both in the press (regional and national) and broadcast media. Friends of mine working in the BBC tell me a story that is all-too familiar from the press, one of additional tasks being slowly but surely added onto everybody’s duties. Because the proliferation of media in this country seems to have been in inverse proportion to the number of working journalists. You got it: yes we are cutting your numbers, and yes we would like you all not only to pick up their work, bit if you could also do this we would be grateful. Or, actually, you get to keep your job.
So where does this leave a PR consultancy with a strong media track record? Actually in a pretty good place – as long as it retains its integrity. Because the media is pleased to have another source for stories. They are even more pleased if they can be written well, in a style that, give or take, means they can be published without too much work. But, if said agency starts trying to ‘sell’ them stories that are boring, have no decent angle, or that seem to have little value other than to promote a company or organisation, then its stock will fall. And that’s no help to anybody.
So, simply, the ethics of this business are essentially down to:
Honesty: be honest with the media. If you lie to them once, your credibility has gone. They talk to each other! That doesn’t mean you have to go to them with your bad news on a platter – they still need to ask the right questions. I am only interested in working for organisations that would not consider lying to get themselves out of a hole. Honesty is also integral to the client/consultant relationship. If I don’t know the full truth, I can’t advise properly. The flip side of this us that we will tell you if a story is not a goer – so you won’t get billed for time on a project that doesn’t take off. With more than 25 years’ experience, my judgement is as good as anybody’s in the industry in terms of what will make a story. A significant proportion of people working in agencies and advising people on the media have never worked on ‘the other side’. Oh, and honesty, of course, in terms of billing – but that, of course, is a given.
Reputation is everything. You can keep your reputation intact even when things go wrong for you – it’s all about the choices you make, especially when the chips are down.
Playing the ball and not the man. Personal smears in order to help take an awkward critic out are out of line. They can also backfire on your organisation and the agency (although bigger outfits usually find a relatively junior account exec to be responsible).