The triumph of PR

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, US news editor at the Financial Times, wonders whether PR is beating journalism at its own game

In 20 years in journalism, I have spent as much time dealing with public relations people as I have dealing with my editors. Most journalists don’t think too highly of the people pitching them stories, massaging bad news or complaining about the adjectives reporters use about their clients.

But the truth is, the PRs are winning. Their business is growing – fast – at the very moment many news businesses are shrinking. Their ranks have been boosted by former journalists who found themselves out of work or unable to meet their bills on a reporter’s salary (two of this year’s Pulitzer Prize winners had left journalism for communications jobs by the time the awards were announced) and PRs now outnumber working journalists more than four to one.

Now the PRs advising the world’s largest businesses are using the same digital tools, disrupting newsrooms to beat journalists at their own game. It has never been easier to produce professional-looking content, or to find an audience for it, and countless businesses are discovering they can become media companies, creating the news rather than merely seeking to influence it.

Having hired many of the reporters and editors laid off by retreating print and broadcast newsrooms, and with budgets editorial operations can only dream of, PR firms and the companies they advise have turned the clunky advertorials of old into a slick, sophisticated, multimedia marketing strategy known as ‘brand journalism’, ‘content marketing’ or the innocuous-sounding ‘storytelling’. As Columbia Journalism Review put it: ‘In the same way ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ became a code word for torture, ‘storytelling’ and ‘storytellers’ have become code words for corporatised news.’

Apple has become the world’s most valuable and most admired company despite (or perhaps because of) a policy of barely engaging with the media – beyond inviting reporters to stage-managed product launches, pumping out polished watch videos for us to reuse and inviting Stephen Fry to interview design guru Sir Jonathan Ive. But the heirs to Steve Jobs have no monopoly on reality distortion fields. From Goldman Sachs to GE, oil companies to defence manufacturers, big businesses are discovering that their own content is king.

In September 2014, I wrote an FT Weekend Magazine story about the triumph of PR – a subject that is under every journalist’s nose, yet few ever write about. It started with the story of a local news site in Richmond, California: the Richmond Standard covers the usual sporting accomplishments and city hall planning meetings, but it happens to be owned by Chevron, the oil company that is the largest employer in town and operator of a refinery where a fire two years earlier sent 15,000 people to hospital.

The site was just the latest twist on an advertorial instinct that has its roots in the early days of Hershey and John Deere but has been given new life and dramatically greater reach in the digital era. Growing numbers of companies – from coal groups funding news sites warning of ‘energy poverty’ to chief executive ‘influencers’ sharing their polished but unfiltered thoughts with their LinkedIn audiences – are finding self-publishing more attractive than having to deal with journalists, the article reported.

Even when they do need to engage with the media, as in the announcements of new chief executives at Microsoft, Ford and Burberry, many are choosing to do so by sending ‘asset packs’ of canned video, glossy portraits and scripted blog posts rather than by putting the boss in front of an unpredictable reporter. And, more often than not, it seems to work.

The story, The Invasion of Corporate News, generated more reaction than anything I’ve ever written before on various beats for newspapers in London and New York, and became one of the Financial Times’ most widely shared and discussed stories of the year. Some journalists saw it as a disturbing prophecy that journalism is doomed, in part by some journalissts’ own lazy complicity with PRs; others hailed it as a rallying cry for the independent reporting only a questioning media can provide. Some PRs saw it as a validation of their efforts; others as a warning that they have overstepped the mark.

Since then, the article has been blogged about, debated in PR firms and newsrooms alike, and become a set text for several journalist school classes. Perhaps my favourite response was from a blog called Surviving Capitalism:

'I regret having to post an article like this from a primary ruling class source. Because this excellent report on the growing trend of directly produced corporate news did not come from alternative media, it is a very bad sad sign of the times we live in.'

Wherever you stand on capitalism, we all have an interest in understanding how companies discovered they could write their own headlines, how they are finding ever larger audiences for the stories they tell about themselves, and how this affects the news business we rely on to understand the world.

Since my article appeared, corporate news has only become more ambitious. Goldman Sachs has begun a series of iTunes podcasts, including interviews of chief executive Lloyd Blankfein by its PR team; Boeing’s defence division has underwritten a PBS television documentary on military families; and GE has gone one better by hiring Academy Award winners Ron Howard and Brian Grazer for a six-part National Geographic series on science and technology ‘breakthroughs’ – and GE’s role in making them happen.

The reaction to my article made me realise that both sides are deeply confused about the rights and wrongs of the new PR. On a personal level, too, it reminded me of something that had been bothering me since I was starting out in journalism. Even in the mid-1990s, while I was cutting my teeth on the Daily Telegraph in London, the newspaper game felt a little perilous.

There were still colleagues around who had first-hand tales of outlandish expenses claims and four-bottle lunches (my first lunch at the Telegraph involved four people, four glasses of champagne, two bottles of wine, four glasses of port and a wobbly 4pm return to the office with the deadline looming). But price wars had left management feeling less flush, most of my generation were on skimpy salaries and short-term contracts, and staffing seemed thin enough that every time a colleague moved it was far from clear how we would fill the void.

When I voiced my existential career concerns one evening to a friend who made television documentaries, she replied reassuringly: ‘We’ll be fine. We’re content!’ She was half-joking, but it was the first time I’d thought of news as content, and my immediate reaction that night has stayed with me ever since. No, we’re not. News is not just content. Its sole role is not just to fill a page or a few minutes of screen time. It’s something more than that. Isn’t it?

If all journalists are doing is filling papers, screens or Twitter feeds, then perhaps not. But as brands continue to blur the line between news and marketing, it will be journalists’ task to define and defend that line, with original, distinctive and valuable journalism that no-one will mistake for marketing.

Put another, more clickable way, there are 4.6 PRs for every journalist in America. You won’t believe what happens next.