Australian media is haemorrhaging.  Multitudes of Fairfax’s most conscience-driven and insightful journalists gone. 50 odd journos from The West Australian gone or going. Where will it stop? But where one story ends, another begins. The reduction in skilled journalists and the concomitant reduction in time remaining editorial staff have, places a heavier responsibility than ever before on public relations professionals operating in a manner serving not just the interests of their employer(s), but also of their employer’s stakeholders and, by extension, society as a whole.

Is journalism dying?

This is not about dancing on any putative grave of journalism, or exploiting increasing challenges the media and quality journalism are grappling with; it is about standing up and helping the media produce quality content. Which begs the question, what is quality content? Well, how about content that:

  • is factual
  • is interesting to those it is targeted at (i.e. different media has different ‘customers’)
  • features a range of perspectives (or two at the very least)
  • recognises people are entitled to hold different views on issues, even if extreme and even if you can drive a truck through ‘truths’ espoused
  • has a narrative.

Other characteristics could no doubt be added to the list. Conflict is probably primary amongst these.

Conflict, resolution and depth in narrative

I’ve been told conflict is what compels people; it’s what sells newspapers. Well, that may well be the case, but in my view the obsession with conflict has led to media developing two contemptible characteristics:

  • Commonly having an unnecessarily negative tenor, both in the nature of stores covered and in the way in which they are covered (quant and qual, if you like)
  • The desperation to find narratives of conflict leading to an abundance of stories which are prurient, inane and catering to the lowest common denominator.

I don’t know how journalists drag themselves out of the bed in the morning to cover these sorts of stories as they are so demeaning to all involved and do nothing to make society a better place. All they do is add to the trash heap of sordid information that clutters contemporary life.

(In my view it is more compelling to provide a resolution, or come close to hinting at a resolution. In this context Dickens, Faulkner, Marilynne Robinson, De Lillo – some of the greatest and most compelling exponents of narrative – come to mind. The impatience of media rarely allows it the time to resolve the narrative or, for that matter, capture its subtleties.)

The increasing platforms on which media operates (cable, websites, social media etc), with its insatiable demand for increasing amounts of content, is no doubt part of the reason for its descent into banality. It’s ironic, then, many of the very tools needed to feed the media beast – journalists – are being excised from the juggernaut.

Why media and public relations exist

Making money was always a key part of why media started. That is its raison d’être. Journalism existing for the common good, or as society’s conscience, has always been largely a fallacy; certainly in my lifetime, anyway. Journalism is media’s main tool to help it make money.

The raison d’être of public relations, theoretically anyway, is to assist organisations and their stakeholders change their behaviour so they operate more in line with each others’ needs and wants than might otherwise have been the case. A public relations professional is the discipline’s tool to help it achieve this.

Manifestations of public relations include:

  • helping those without the power, or means, to express their views articulate it to organisations relevant to them
  • helping organisations be as transparent as feasibly possible
  • prompting organisations to change their operations so they are more in line with stakeholder expectations
  • being a positive force, one focused not on divisiveness or negativity or conflict, but one predicated on building bridges with the view to deliver a win-win outcome.

This latter point is one that, clearly, journalism does not seek, nor is it inherently able, to deliver. Journalism operates from the outside; public relations operates from the inside – much closer to where organisational power and decision making resides.

At its best, public relations is the conscience of an organisation. Some journalists achieve this, too, but most media outlets as a whole fail in this because of their heavy weighting towards the negative rather than the balanced or positive.

Various research initiatives have identified in the order of 80 odd per cent of stories in the media are instigated by public relations professionals. So add these elements together:

  • Journalist numbers are being dramatically reduced
  • Most stories in the media are instigated from a PR professional idea or approach
  • The public relations discipline exists to help both organisations and their stakeholders
  • A fundamental tenet of public relations is generating narratives
  • The need for society to hear more good stories and, inherently, the influence this can have in fostering a more positive, amenable and less defeatist mindset in society (okay, okay, this is on my wish list, alright?).

Is something happening here? Is this a tipping point? Is this the opportunity public relations has been waiting for to gain the credibility it has been seeking but, in many arenas, has clearly been failing to achieve for many years?

Can public relations help media not just survive, but evolve into a discipline that is more of a positive healing force than it has ever been before?

What is your experience in dealing with media outlets which are reducing their number of journalists? Is it impacting on your ability to place stories or the nature of their stories? How do you think the rationalisation occurring in the media landscape, as well as the increasing number of media platforms, will impact on how you do your job, or on the practice and evolution of public relations itself?

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