Rather struck this week by Richard Sambrook’s announcement that he’s joining Edelman, the PR firm, following his departure from the BBC. You can imagine the rolling eyes among the old-school hacks at the prospect of such a respected journalism figure joining the dark side, and there are a couple of comments to that effect under Richard’s post. For many journalists, the dividing line between PR and newsmaking has always been and will always be deep and wide and tall.
But when someone as smart and intellectually curious as Richard makes a move like this, you have to dig a little deeper. It seems obvious to all of us now that connected media is transforming journalism, turning it, as Jeff Jarvis says, from a product into a process. But in fact journalism has always been a process, and PR has always been a process as well. And it’s in the history of these processes that the perceived gulf between them has opened up.
When the vehicle for eyeballs was print, with its inbuilt limitations of space, journalists and advertising sales teams were the gatekeepers for user attention. Commercial interests that wanted attention had two options: buy advertising from the sales teams (where the quality of the attention being bought was reflected in the price of the ad); or get their messages into news stories. Journalists meanwhile had something of a monopoly on user attention, and saw themselves as providing something unique, socially essential and in some senses holy. People bought newspapers because of the journalism, they argued, so therefore the sanctity of the journalism should be preserved at all costs (though it turns out, as we now know, that peoples’ reasons for buying newspapers were rather more nuanced and complicated than that).
So immediately journalists and PRs found themselves locked into a transactional process where “market value” was reflected by the quality (and uniqueness) of the information being traded. Journalists thrived on exclusivity, because that’s how they gained both attention and also self-worth: if they broke a unique story, they were professionally validated.
PRs sometimes thrived on exclusivity (when the story was big enough), but normally craved ubiquity, because that meant more eyeballs. Journalists saw themselves as gatekeepers and purveyors of truth; PRs saw journalists as opportunities and as obstacles. No wonder they rarely got on.
But now we find ourselves in a world where anyone has access to eyeballs at any time. The playing field has been levelled. Anyone with something interesting to say can get it into the public forum, as the politicians are beginning to discover. But once it’s out there, a new set of skills is needed to get significant attention to it. These are communication skills, and they include such things as optimising for search, incorporating reader input and responding quickly to new information.
That is the new process, and journalists and PRs suddenly find they don’t need each other in quite the same way as before. They’re both embarking on discovering how these new communications techniques can work in their favour; they’re both immersed in the process. That’s why journalists-as-communicators may find themselves increasingly attracted to PR firms, because what those firms offer is just another toolkit for getting attention.
A question, though: what type of person might go the other way?