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Aug 16, 2011 3:13:35 PM - www.ft.lk

Journalism today has become a top job worldwide in terms of the power it wields, be it in social reform, removing unpopular regimes or exposing corruption. It has virtually become the world’s watchdog and sometimes its powers even spread into becoming both the judge and the jury in deciding what is right and wrong.

Especially after the advent of social media and citizen journalism, this hallowed institution known as the Fourth Estate has certainly proved itself to be the fourth leg of the democracy table.
They have taken on the role of powerfully managing the message, even going to the extent of purging out bad apples from their own system, like what happened with ‘News of the World’.
The journalists of the world are fragmented in the various institutions and business they belong to, but as a whole, they are united as one organism that claims to produce the truth for public consumption every day.
Hanging on to this mighty ‘truth machine’ is another sector which is auxiliary to it and that is the Public Relations industry. This industry has in its ambit, independent PR companies and corporate communications people, probably considered the illegitimate child by the mighty media industry, which often considers PR people as mere spin doctors, who do not give out a pure message for public consumption.
While the activities surrounding journalism are very well known to the public, PR people themselves are in the penumbra of the media industry.
But as much as material produced by this shadowy group of professionals forms a very large part of what is consumed in today’s media, very little is known as to what they actually do and what sieves they use to filter what finally gets into public domain.
Apart from calling them spin doctors, which implies that they give a twist to the story (which is also done by journalists, but it is then called an angle), there is more that is done in the information production assembly line, which goes towards bringing clarity to the overall message that is consumed by the general public.
PR is not merely spewing out press releases. It’s about understanding the big picture – the message which is much larger than the space allocated for it in a news report of a newspaper or on television. It involves breaking down useful information into smaller bites so that it can fall within the framing of media and the comprehending formula of the public.
It is understanding that truth is not absolute, but the facts are sacred. Public relations is a role that holds equal or even more responsibility than journalism and done with the right accountability, it would certainly enhance transparency, which is necessary for the good governance of any sector in a country’s operation.
But on the surface, PR does not have the dashing image of the ‘knight in shining armour’ that accompanies journalism. It is more like the silent ‘squire,’ who is very much in the shade.
Most information that comes from the commercial world has to be given a certain treatment before it can enter the pages of a newspaper. Reams and reams of paper, which contain important information, have to be broken down before it is consumed by the public and this breaking down is an important part of public relations.
Sometimes everything that is known operationally about a certain project, which for the purpose of this article can be called ‘operational truth,’ cannot be digested by the public without causing panic and misunderstanding.
Therefore, the operational truth has to be converted into the public relations truth, which can then move on to become the journalism truth. The process of treatment to this information is what gives PR professionals a bad name.
However, the real facts, no matter how much one tries to hide it, will surface (I believe this is a natural law) and even if newspapers cross the line as the News of the World has allegedly done, they would get their due.
Therefore PR professionals have to use methods that ensure transparency in their message handling; however, bearing in mind what medium they are operating in and who is going to consume it.
On one side of the mainstream media are the PR people but on the other side of it is another entity which is also in the message creating business. They are the citizen journalists – the consumer turned producer; a medium which was until very recently thought to be a very pure form of journalism due to its democratic structure.
However, during the recent riots in London, it was clearly exposed as to how interested parties could misuse social media to create havoc.
The PR industry might be on the left of mainstream media and social media input on the right, both feeding the gigantic media machine.
Both have an influence on the mainstream media, but as compared to social media whose claims for credibility comes from its so-called transparency, the PR industry’s credibility has to come from a good governance structure and its rules has to be set so that its operations can produce information and news that is credible in the long run and therefore sustainable.
The challenge that PR has today is pitching itself against social media in being the credible source for mainstream media.
(The writer, a PR consultant and head of Media360, was previously a mainstream journalist in print and electronic media. He also edits a new media website.)

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