I was taught in my graduate class that journalists and public relations (PR) professionals share a love-hate relationship. I experienced the validity of this statement when I myself worked as a public relations professional in various capacities in India and dealt with journalists.
I could feel how my relationship with them used to fluctuate, ranging from a symbiotic relationship to a parasitic relationship. Some days journalists would call me to get an exclusive story or for that special interview, and other days the same journalists would not even take my call.
An incident that happened in India recently had wide impact across the Indian bureaucracy, corporate world and Indian media, and confirmed my knowledge of the relationship between journalists and PR professionals.
A PR professional of a large Indian PR agency tried to influence Indian journalists to write positive stories for her client. Two journalists (one from a respected newspaper and one from a TV channel) were featured prominently in the tapes. The conversations were not limited to the benefits of the corporation alone but also involved influencing decisions of portfolios in the Indian cabinet ministry. The whole conversation was recorded by external sources and published. Because of new media, the transcripts of the conversations are now available in the public sphere for consumption by the general public.
In the series of recorded conversations, the seemingly influential PR professional gave directions to the journalists to write the story favoring her client. The journalists were heard asking for opinion and directions from the PR person on how to write and proceed with their respective stories. The PR person seemed to be
in full control and one of the journalists seemed more than willing to take directions from her.
When these journalists were asked to clarify, they reported they were simply doing their job of gathering information from a PR person, and it was usual for journalists to pretend to be friendly with PR persons to access “inside stories” and exchange information in an informal setting. They nonchalantly dismissed it as part of the “love-hate” relationship between journalists and PR professionals. The indicted journalists tried to clarify their position by writing articles, tweeting and using other social media devices. But their clarification did not diminish the damage t to their reputation and faced a lot of criticism because of their alleged relationship with a PR professional and, more importantly, for getting “influenced.”
This incident created quite a stir but the professionals in both the industries know that this is how things function. The entire journalists’ fraternity came under fire and many articles and discussions took place on the growing deterioration of the Indian media industry.
Since journalists cannot avoid interacting with PR professionals, how much is too much? It is always a difficult decision to draw the line on how far the relationship between a PR professional and a journalist can go. When the actions and conversations are always under scrutiny because of new media technology and increased competition among media, it becomes important for journalists to be careful in their relationship with PR professionals.
Namrata Bansal is a first year Ph. D. candidate in Southern Illinois University Carbondale. She worked for six years as a PR professional in India.