The excitements, tensions and prejudices sparked by Julia Hobsbawm's Editorial Intelligence project, which attempts to bridge the gap between journalists and PRs, have been crystallized by inflammatory comments from Cristina Odone.
In her Guardian column Odone writes:
Journalists are in the business of exposing the truth, PRs are in the business of twisting it. Journalists want nothing more than to strip away the protective layers with which the powerful camouflage their objectives or their achievements; PRs are paid by the powerful to prevent precisely this. So no, there is no moral equivalence between journalism and PR.
Former R4 Today editor Rod Liddle said much the same in The Independent:
...I don't want PR to have anything to do with journalism. It is our job to discover the truth, and theirs is to disguise it.
Some of the reaction from PR commentators can crudely be be characterised as "I know some decent journalists and some decent PRs, and I know bad on both sides, too."
While certainly true, this notion of examining the norms of a discipline by experience of its practitioners doesn't really get to the central issue.
Because journalists pride themselves on truth and accuracy, they place the sanctity of 'facts' as the faultline between the practices.
And the PR case is made more difficult when Max Clifford weighs in with quotes like this, from the same edition of Media Guardian as Odone's piece.
"We only want what is in the best interests of our clients, who pay us vast sums of money, and to achieve that we are deceitful, creative and economic with the truth, often hiding it."
'Respectable' PR has a speedy response, suggesting that Clifford isn't really a PR at all. This argument, one which I find hard to accept, often tries to find a legitimacy in the framings laid down by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.
Perhaps Clifford's ambivalence to 'truth' does put him beyond the pale, but even the most straight-backed PR can't dispute that PR does different things with truth than journalism.
For journalism, truth, or better, accuracy goes hand in hand with balance. A claim is made and it is tested by counter-claim.
So a journalist begins from the assumption that there are (at least) two sides to every story; a PR is paid to present just one side of the story, and present it is as persuasively as possible.
Odone, Liddle and others fall down when they fail to acknowledge that journalism then frames these accounts in line with (supposed) news values into a story (their word!) that is necessarily partial. You can say a glass is half full, you can say it is half empty. Both are equally 'true' or 'accurate', and the journalist must choose which to put first; this framing or sequencing may significantly affect the thrust of the account, but will not usually be regarded as twisting the truth...
Unless, of course, if this framing is made by a PR.
PR's problem is that it has serious difficulty in determining what does indeed constitute ethical practice.
For a lot of PRs, accuracy is just another factor in the wider field of reputation management: "It is important that we win a reputation for honesty and fair dealing."
For a lot of journalists, the desire for balance, for always promoting the counter argument, can lead to causes and ideas that are inherently unworthy of the attention, gaining far greater prominence in a 'balanced' or 'accurate' discourse than they would otherwise merit.