As well as being an author and a screenwriter, I work in communications, also known as public relations. But I used to work in journalism, and I sometimes do freelance journalism work for a little extra cash when I can. That’s our economy. It’s a hustle.
|Films like Spotlight are excellent public relations for
the image of journalism as a profession whose ideal
is the pursuit of truth, accountability, and justice.
The fact that I work both in public relations and journalism might sound a little weird to some of my older colleagues in communications. It might sound weird to some of my communications colleagues who are younger, and for whom PR is their only career. To an older journalist, it might sound like an intense hypocrisy.
When I worked in journalism, the ethical mantra of the profession was heard frequently, from many corners of conversation. Strive for objectivity, and above all strive for truth.
While most major journalistic institutions frequently serve their corporate masters, or the elite classes, or the government that intimidates or outright runs it, the ethical ideal will always haunt the profession.
As far as this goes, public relations is an anathema profession. Their job is to promote the messages that their clients want as many people as possible to believe about them, no matter its truth.
At least, that’s the morally worst possible way to describe the profession, and the way to describe the morally worst public relations people. Like the PR pro working at a big agency, who’ll move from working on a retainer for an organization like the Sierra Club to a file for the Energy East pipeline without a second thought to any possible conflicts between those clients. Just doing my job.
I’ve met older folks in PR who presume that journalists are all out to get the PR pro and the companies they work for. I’ve read PR pros’ articles complaining about “smug journos” who can barely articulate their point without betraying their own pathetic egotism.
The thing is, journalism isn’t a special profession. There are duties of ethical practice that many people rely on, since the power of the media to shape public opinion and culture is immense. And public relations is powerful too. PR pros at the apex of the profession represent and manage the reputations of the world’s most powerful corporations.
Engineers, for example, have a similar power in society. They literally build the structures we live in, work in, and travel in every day. They have a considerable ethical duty of best practice, but no one considers engineers smug. At least not for this reason.
Though Gwyther’s article, linked above, had a solid place in his cheek, he seemed to miss an important aspect of his most condescending point. Yes, PR professionals who work in decently-sized agencies or corporations tend to make more money than the average journalist.
But not everyone who chooses communications for their career gets these positions right away. Although it’s a business designation in a field that’s necessary for all businesses, full employment is a thing of the past. Journalists and communicators suffer the same problems: a growing supply of labour in a shrinking or stagnant job market.
Journalists and communicators, the working stiffs going contract to contract, are starting our careers with neither title. Instead, we’re content creators.
There are quite a few negative aspects to this. From the journalist’s side, there’s the pressure to produce clickbait to drive clickthrough and advertising revenue, above actually informing people and provoking them to think.
The communicators likewise forget about engaging their audience, building deep identification, a fandom, or any dedication to their brand or company. “Engaging content” is too vague an idea to give any indication of what standard of quality a creator should strive for, aside from ‘good enough to get a clickthrough or a follow.’
But one positive aspect of all media producers having to start their careers as ‘content creators’ is that the antagonism and hostility between communicators and journalists are disappearing.
Young journalists know the life of the company person without the self-deceit of their noble illusion. And young communicators find themselves writing journalism as often as PR copy.
I came across an angry tweet the other day. “Journalists hate the word "content" because they want to believe that journalism is a special snowflake.” More smugness from someone who doesn’t realize that the vacuousness of employing someone for a purpose so vague as “Make us some content” actually results in terrible content.
When all you ask for is some content, all you're asking for is something to read or watch that meets the merest minimum standard of distracting a person from their current task to put an ad in front of their face.
When you ask only for content, you're putting the creative elements of media to the service of ads. But you can only produce truly great content (like Breaking Bad) when you consider the ads in the service of the content itself.
Directionless, empty content. The imperative to “make good content” separates us from what we’re actually doing in a way that “make entertainment,” “make journalism,” or “make art” doesn’t.