Spinning news

July 14, 2007 • Public Relations • by

Weltwoche, Nr. 14, July 2007

Since socialism and capitalism have never really found a way to unite in harmony, the time has come for a new convergence theory: the fusion of journalism and PR.

The old joke about the difference between journalism and PR is a time-honoured classic, so perhaps I may be excused for telling it again. The PR consultant of a major bank and a journalist are having lunch with the boss of that bank. Suddenly, a Rottweiler attacks a small child! Fearlessly, the banker throws himself on the beast and kills it with his bare hands. The PR consultant runs back to his office and hammers in the following communiqué: “Banker risks his own life to save a child”. The journalist races back to his office, too, coming up with this headline: “BANK BOSS CHOKES PET!”

It’s the difference in perspective that sets the two professions apart. PR consultants have a duty towards their client, whom they are expected to put in a favourable light. Journalists, however, are not indebted to such a client – but simply and solely to the Truth.

Recently, a number of high-profile journalists have changed sides, presenting themselves as newly-converted PR consultants. Among them are many former editors-in-chief, such as Jürg Wildberger (Weltwoche), Andreas Z’Graggen (Berner Zeitung), Medard Meier (Bilanz) and Markus Gisler (Cash). And before them, were their counterparts at Tages-Anzeiger, Blick, Facts and Sonntagsblick, who followed the very same route.

The trend is a global one. The latest coup in this area was pulled off by Joe Ackermann, CEO at Deutsche Bank, who secured the services of Stefan Baron, former editor-in-chief of Wirtschaftswoche, as the bank’s new head of communication.

After the rapprochement between capitalism and socialism, predicted by many, didn’t really come about during the 1960s, we now are in a position to proudly present a new convergence theory: PR and journalism are in for a fusion. Making PR more journalistic and journalism more PR-like – that is the aim.

It is not that journalists are suddenly leaving their independence in the cloakroom when they enter their offices. It was only during the 35 years out of a history of 235 years that the Swiss journalists ever enjoyed true independence from outside influences. This means that for 200 years, they were mostly party soldiers. As an example: till just about 40 years ago it didn’t make much of a difference whether you were writing about Switzerland’s Free Democratic Party (FDP) for Neue Zürcher Zeitung or producing PR material for the same party for PR giant Farner. Whether journalist or spin doctor: you had your affiliations and were acting accordingly.

However, since 1968 things changed. From then on, objectivity and truthfulness were not only debated theoretically, but actually observed by the members of the journalistic trade.

In the PR sector, things took a bit longer to evolve. Until the 80s, the notorious claim of Rudolf Farner, that for a million Swiss francs you could even get a bag of potatoes elected as Federal Council, still was considered a truism. Manipulation, not information, was the name of the game.

But during the 80s, things were different once again… PR professionals discovered the value of classic information, and they learnt it from journalists. Today’s PR battles, like the one raging around Swissfirst, for example, are tightly organised and well-structured information campaigns, not only involving the press’s usual stock-in-trade like media conferences, interviews and press releases, but also information exchanges on a much more intimate scale, i.e. via personal meetings, private briefings and co-operative deals with selected journalists.

Conversely, journalists have learnt from PR pros how to “spin” the news.

How to turn news into an event

For the sake of argument, let’s ask the following question: what happens if coffee prices sink in the Third World? Your average journalist will probably write a gripping piece on the disastrous effects of globalisation, calling for an increase in foreign aid. A spin doctor, on the other hand, will bring retailer Migros to pay in 50 cents for every kilogram of coffee sold to a dedicated donations account – the total sum of which will later be handed over by the company’s CEO to Caritas, during a charity concert fronted by U2.

By now, journalists have learnt from PR professionals that any piece of information will only have an impact if it is “dramatised” and turned into an event. It’s how the facts are presented which makes all the difference. Lately, we’ve all had plenty of opportunity to see how this works in examples pertaining to scandals surrounding overpaid managers, aircraft noise, the stock market gambling of pension funds administrators or the faux pas committed by our national football coach.
Hence, PR doyen Klaus J. Stöhlker is wrong in claiming that (in business paper Finanz & Wirtschaft) all former editors-in-chief would be “PR apprentices at most, people who get paid by their clients to learn the tricks of the trade”.

Today’s journalists are learning these tricks already within their own field. They know how to spin the news, how to conduct a media campaign, how to leave out unwanted facts and highlight desired ones – in short, they know about the interplay between private and public interest.

All those editors-in-chief who are now entering the PR sector, it follows, are not really changing their profession. They are mainly changing their job title.

Translation from German: Oliver Heinemann

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