The ongoing stand-off between hacks and flaks

In 1989 I was a neophyte press secretary to the newly deposed John Winston Howard MP.

Howard had just lost the leadership of the Liberal Party and was re-establishing his working relationship with the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Unlike most press secs, my background was in public relations and not journalism. I mostly kept this to myself as I quickly determined that gallery journos thought PR-types to be lower on the credibility-scale than even used car salesmen.

Although both journalists and PR practitioners use words to ply their trade, that’s pretty much the extent of the two professions’ similarity. While journalism professionals have been trained to seek, write and convey news through a variety of communications media, PR professionals have been trained to use any/all communication media to achieve a strategic objective. Sometimes the objective is to make news; other times it’s to stay out of the news.

So each profession sees the other as potentially an aid or a barrier to the news task at hand. You can see then why there’s an ongoing and mutually-suspicious stand-off between hacks and flaks.

I was reminded of this back in April with Marius Benson’s excellent piece on the necessary antagonism between politicians and journalists. I believe the same necessity applies to the relationship between journalists and PR people.

Try reading this quote from Benson’s piece with the word politician replaced by spin-doctor to see what I mean:

There is a dark common ground between journalists and politicians, their self-interest coincides because politicians want favourable coverage and journalists want stories. This gives rise to that twilight world of leaks, scoops, unsourced stories and “this journalist understands” or some other passive, non-specific non-attribution. That swampy world of private collaboration generates a lot of the “news” in politics, but it is arguable how well served the public is by an arrangement that suits both politicians and journalists. No it’s a healthier world for everyone to be out in the open and for politicians and journalists to know where they stand, not friends, not collaborators, not partners – antagonists”

For quite a different reason, Jonathan Green poignantly gave us a similar message more recently.  The message is simple: the media is not your friend.

I learned this first hand as a novice PR professional. It was confirmed many times when as a press sec I watched a succession of journalists swiftly transition from “hail fellow, well met” to an interrogatory style that could best be described as jugular. And as an industry lobbyist I’ve seen more stitch-up jobs by investigatory journalists over the past 15 years than I care to remember.

It‘s hardly surprising then that communications practitioners are employed to act as a buffer between the news media and those that they seek to extract news from. The ranks of media minders may well have swelled over the years, as bemoaned by Jonathan Holmes today.

Clearly this is for good reason. Long before the (almost dog-eared) epithet “sideshow” was coined by Lindsay Tanner, journalists were using gotcha tactics in the hope of surprising a politician or other news subject into divulging something they might not have otherwise.

This is the reason politicians, CEOs and lobbyists are given media training and stick to scripted comments. This is the reason why journalists with no PR training have been recruited as media advisers.

It’s also why politicians are reluctant to do pre-recorded interviews (they can so easily be edited to place a comment out of context) and probably why Jonathan Holmes, despite his eagerness to do a story on clean coal, was not welcome to film at an open cut coal mine.

I don’t foresee a day when journalists will portray PR practitioners, particularly media minders, in a favourable light. They see us as barriers and not as enablers; although in reality we are both.

Perhaps, as Marius Benson points out, this is the way it should be. I hope he explains this to his colleague Jonathan Holmes.