Newsflash: PR is NOT Sinister Media Manipulation

Over the years I’ve learned to accept that most people simply don’t understand my chosen profession, public relations.  Some think it is just about media relations, which can be irritating (see my post about PR’s PR Problem).

Working with journalists is only one aspect of the field (in this post, I list others). Many succeed in PR without ever doing so – and those that just focus on media seem increasingly old school.

If PR does not equal media relations, it hurts worse to have sinister media manipulation called PR – but that is exactly what the New York Times did in the story: Russian Hackers Find Ready Bullhorns in the Media.

The article discusses how Russian operatives packaged and sold damaging information, gained from hacking, to a pliant US press corps during the 2016 presidential campaign. Like a cheap novel, no one comes away looking very good. Max Fisher writes:

“As the dust settles on Russian interference in the United States election, journalists are confronting an aspect that has received less scrutiny: Moscow’s ability to steer Western media coverage by doling out hacked documents… Reporters have always relied on sources who provide critical information for self-interested reasons. The [rub] is to serve the public interest without falling prey to the source’s agenda. But in this case, the source was Russia’s military intelligence agency — and its agenda was to undermine the American presidential election.”

The piece goes on to describe exactly how this was done.  It repeatedly describes the effort as “public relations work” under the heading A New Dark Art.

In another section, ‘Almost More like a PR firm’, the reporter quotes a source:

“Tom Cheshire, a reporter with the British network Sky News… said [the operatives] behaved ‘almost more like a P.R. firm, really’ and were ‘very businesslike,’ doling out scoops and trying to shape coverage.”

In my experience the vast majority of PR pros – even the ones who focus on media work – are doing nothing more than trying to get positive press, for brands, celebrities, and organizations. It’s not about manipulating media for some sinister purpose.

Too bad, because it’s an otherwise great piece that explores the tension between reporter and source, and the public’s right to know.

Reporters, I know you have a tough job, and it’s not your responsibility to explain PR. Still, you should understand the power and impact of your words – and their potential to perpetuate negative and unfair stereotypes.

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