Crisply turned out in uniform displaying her honours, and cordoned away from a gathering throng, itself encircled by suited men on the one hand and an arching of press cameras on the other side, she spoke: “…As commissioner I will do everything I can to learn any lessons…”
Her words were measured, punctuated by pregnant pauses, a face contorted by concern. She frequently lowered her eyes to read from a binder: “I know what happened to Sarah and indeed what has happened to other women in London and in recent times has raised important questions about women’s safety”.
The Metropolitan police Commissioner Cressida Dick was speaking at London’s leading criminal court following the conviction of a serving policeman Wayne Couzens for the murder of Sarah Everard.
I, like many know of the Commissioner’s address from a clip on Social Media, and broadcast on Television News. It is newsworthy and of significance, yes but it’s also well staged and managed. But why lift just the clip for Social Media and further label it with her words? A thread, perhaps for context?
The collective grief and public interest in the case runs deep, deep enough to merit concerns about how on earth it could ever have happened, and how the Police will make the lives of women safer. This is a news item with legs and journalists continue to cover the aftermath of the case. Something else fundamental to journalism and democracy also concerns me. This is not to politicise a tragic event. No! It illustrates an aspect of news that’s become invisibly conventional.
Day’s earlier, unrelated, Britain’s Chancellor Rishi Sunak is framed and interviewed wearing a hi-vis yellow jacket on top of his suit. The framing and mise-en-scène show an aesthetic shallow focus that would be approved by film director Denis Villeneuve. The Chancellor tells a reporter in the wake of lifting furlough, the Conservative’s have “a plan for jobs with the skills and opportunities they need..”
I, like many know this too because it’s from the BBC’s Social Media feed, and most likely made its way on television news. The tweet from BBC reads Chancellor Rishi Sunak says he “feels confident about the future”…
In both cases, and there are many, many more examples to choose from, officials had a point to make and news was there to capture it. But, the question is, is news helping the audience better understand matters by simply acting as a stenograph. It might as well have come from the Met’s press office or Downing Street. Does it help audiences if clips like the aforementioned aren’t challenged, and if so robustly? And thus is news not unwittingly merely acting as an adjunct to Public Relations?
The answer is No, No and Yes, respectively. It’s a complex environ, but can be unthreaded to reveal why?
Firstly two important facts about the communications industry.
The first is PR is synonymous with propaganda. The man who coined the word, “Public Relations” and is often called the father of PR Edward Bernays says so, and he profoundly influenced the industry today. You can find out more about PR’s genesis here. Bernays’ uncle was Sigmund Freud.
The second, according to the PR and Communications census 86,000 people worked in the PR and Comms industry in 2018. Whilst a Journalists at Work (JAW) survey puts the number of journalists at 73,000.
Notwithstanding different accounting means, and that recent figures will have changed, the general point is there are as many people working in PR (if not more in 2018) as there are journalists. The central point too is PR is not bound by impartiality. It exist to represents it client’s point of view.
In both clips both parties are briefed, internally and often externally, to present their side of the story. There are talking points and on-message narratives they must adhere to.
Later that evening on BBC Newsnight, a former Police Chief Sue Fish, responding to more of the police’s messaging which included women being told to hail a bus if a plain clothes policeman is seen as a threat said the following.
It’s completely absurd. It’s impractical and to think the Metropolitan Police had the best part of six months to work out what their response was going to be following the sentencing of Wayne Couzens; the fact that they’ve come up with this feels they simply don’t understand the issue and have absolutely no insight whatsoever.
Six months to work out a response? If you’ve not worked in news before the idea that corporates carefully manage the news may sound unusual. At heart is the question can you ever as a journalist get an unalloyed answer to an issue from the government or a public body? And if not, what’s the point of journalism and news?
PR cosying up in bed with news isn’t new. It’s a relationship newspapers have formally enjoyed for a hundred years, followed by radio and television, but in the digital era it’s taken on a sinister life of its own. From the corporates pushing their agenda and news outfits who’ve yet to figure out their response, the net effect in a digital landscape with eyeballs pulling in advertisers, is toxic!
There are several issues to examine on the media’s part. Firstly in a bid to draw an audience Reuters, as like other media, edits short clips of officials speaking. They caption the clip to reflect the speaker’s talking point, “bold decisions” , and choose a fitting photo.
In the analogue age this wasn’t possible. In the digital era with high competition media will strip events and repackage them any number of ways, failing sometimes to understand how to be critical using SM. By not challenging figures and the emotional content, the news merely serves those well who want their messages uncritically broadcast (PR).
In the example below, the UK PM Boris Johnson would not object. News media will claim their job is to record, not to editorialise. But that’s a specious argument. They make choices everyday. And it’s precisely this choice that enables officials to seize the news initiative. Another day, another photoshoot, another opportunity to draw in the news media, and sell their message.
US former President Trump knew all too well how to woo and use the media as the “other”, as well as stage Hollywoodesque balcony entrances for news to relay to viewers.
The toxicity of news as PR occurs across different strata of news and clearly as detailed here from the Harvard Business Review 1995 article, “Why the News Is Not the Truth” by Peter Vanderwicken it’s a recognisable problem in the US.
In the UK, writes Press Gazette there are more than 3,400 people in PR who work for local government. Large swathes of public interest issues come via local government press releases, often written by ex-journalist, whose writing skills set the receiving journalists’ agenda and can often feature online in newspaper with light to no editing.
At a gathering of PR professionals entitled, Public Relations: The Master Now a key speaker John Lloyd recounted how a former national newspaper editor explained the influence of PR on newspapers.
Now, public relations has taken to a very large extent over some of what journalism has done. One of the people we spoke to was a man called Phi Hall who was editor of News of the World whilst it still existed and founded before he died an agency called The PHA and he told us with great frankness. What is now in newspapers including national newspaper was written by him and his team.
Hall was referring to celebrity news, but this relationship occurs across news in general. In international news, the impact of PR news can be reflected in this piece from The London Evening Standard stating “London’s public relations industry has got a PR problem. Top firms such as Bell Pottinger, Brown Lloyd James, Portland and Grayling are coming under intense scrutiny because of their work for foreign governments or in regimes of dubious repute”.
Revelations of Bell Pottinger’s relationship with an Indian business family, the Guptas, in South Africa and an investigation by the the industry’s trade association that Bell Pottinger mounted a clandestine campaign to stir up racial tensions, led to it being expelled from the association. Lord Bell, one of the co-founders denied any responsibility for company’s affairs in South Africa.
Some years earlier the Bureau of Investigative journalism unveiled how the Pentagon employed Bell Pottinger as consultants during the Iraq War. A whistle blower Martin Wells explained his work in the $500 million contract.
One of three main operations was “ the production of fake al Qaeda propaganda films”. Wells said he’d been given precise instructions hot to make the videos: “We need to make this style of video and we’ve got to use al Qaeda’s footage,” he was told. “We need it to be 10 minutes long, and it needs to be in this file format, and we need to encode it in this manner.” Wells adds in the articles Marines would drop the CDs when they raided a target.
Is all PR malevolent? No? There’s also a strong argument that’s made how PR helps journalism find stories. However, the strategic operations of PR is to promote their client and diminish any crisis. The Conservative government’s strategist Lynton Crosby is a modern day version of Bernays. One of his most famous campaigns was to turn the tide of a run on Labour’s messaging during a general election by citing the labour leader Ed Miliband would stab the country in the back, because he did the same to his brother during the labour election for its leader.
Its reasoning was wholly suspect, but Crosby, like Bernays was appealing to the electorate’s emotions and irrational fear. It appeared to work. The Tories broke Labour’s run on headlines, and the manifestation of politics and dead cats was in plain site. Even labour strategists congratulated their conservative opponents. Less sanguine were the press. They’d been had again!
Clearly then there’s no hope. Save investigative journalists pieces which take time to complete and emerge after a news cycle, what else can a journalist do? How does a new generation turn the dial?
More recently fact-checking has been wheeled out. Unguarded, a journalist seeks to correct a sleight of hand, or even now a blatant lie by rebutting the story with ‘truthful’ facts. This often happens after the story has aired.
By then the news item is in the wind and the impact of bringing the interviewer to book is lost. The moment is gone. But there is a way and it’s for journalists to go back to school, and if you’re in a journalism school insist on the following and a grounding in PR.
Firstly, be throughly prepared in interviews. It requires gaming out scenarios and prefiguring how to tackle an answer which looks to obfuscate the facts. And for the press release, ask yourself what’s not in it. This in effect is game theory. PRs know how to drive news; it’s about time news paid more attention to the actions of PR influencing them.
Secondly and a corollary of the former is to call out egregious manipulations as untruths or lies and be persistent. It is the persistence that matters according to behavioural psychologists. Journalists require a greater grasp of behavioural psychology, and historical knowledge to spot and call out distraction techniques, particularly ones that place emotions alongside fear. This should be relayed to viewers by breaking news’ 4th wall.
Edward Bernays was behind the campaign that turned the tide for public smoking to become popular with women. He created pork and eggs breakfast off the back of a suspect health campaign, and played a significant role in the overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz in 1954.
Andrew Marr’s show on Sunday BBC 1 displayed parts of this.
Thirdly, while the former sees how journalists address facts, there’s little training about how to cope with emotive language. In part that’s because classical journalism eschews any notion of entertaining emotion as part of journalism. Another specious argument as David Bordwell, a film cognitivists points to stories and images containing “feelingful qualities”. Images and words naturally evoke emotions. Journalists require training in the langue of cinema, which impacts viewers in ways TV most likely has not considered. The shallow depth of field shot below is an example of editorialising as well as beautifying the image. This is the practice that was my PhD, and is referred to as Cinema Journalism.
Lastly, this is where technology could play a greater role in helping viewers. One of the reasons, PR brief their clients on repetition techniques, soundbites and mangled facts is journalists don’t have the bandwidth to recall all rebuttal points, or to interrogate an unfolding narrative.
Here using AI in real time graphics a journalist could rely on data to inform the public of a skewed piece of news or manufactured fact in play. We worked on a theoretical model which was shown to schools early this year, from working within our Emerging Journalism module. That module has recently been awarded an innovation fund for the work it’s doing.
Clearly too if journalists are to regain lost ground to PR, then they have to stop presenting on Social Media labels and clips like this, and be mindful of the peak end rule.
These are part of a series of lectures by Dr David Dunkley Gyimah who is a cinema journalist and academic at Cardiff University where he was the Committee leader of this year’s successful Future of Journalism conference. He’s a former Political Producer for Channel 4’s Politics Show, and has won international awards for innovation in journalism. @Medium ranks him as one of the top ten writers in journalism amongst their 60m active users. More on David here.