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Lines between journalism and PR are blurring, says media veteran

By Deepak Goel | PUBLISHED: 15, Jul 2016, 7:50 am IST | UPDATED: 15, Jul 2016, 8:27 am IST

Lines between journalism and PR are blurring, says media veteran Journalism and Public Relations may have come a long way since the days of the town-criers. But the professionals in these respective fields have kept re-inventing themselves with the changing times, overcoming tough challenges.

PR, in fact, has kept pace with the rapidly evolving media-print, electronic and now social media. The explosive growth of the social media can be gauged from the fact that the government addresses its constituencies through twitter.

For long, a generation of journalists questioned PR material and dissected it thoroughly before using it. But today, there is an increasing apprehension that the difference between PR material and journalism is blurring.

IANS spoke to veteran media professional BN Kumar, National President of the Public Relations Council of India (PRCI) and Executive Director of Concept PR, who recently completed 40 years in media-first as a journalist and then a PR practitioner-to focus on the rapidly changing communication trends.

Question: What are the major changes that you have observed in the last four decades?

Answer: I entered my journalism classes at Osmania University, Hyderabad, in June 1975 when Indira Gandhi declared Emergency. Learning journalism under censorship was a challenge by itself.

Interestingly, some newspapers like The Indian Express used to leave blank areas on their pages indicating that it was space meant for the news that was censored.

Once Indira announced elections in March 1977 and the opposition leaders were released, media started carrying reports of Emergency excesses. In fact, it won't be wrong to say that the Emergency was the watershed for Indian media. Though there might have been cases of corruption earlier, scandals and scams assumed huge proportions in reporting.

Q: So, there is nothing new about scams becoming the flavour of the season?

A: Yes. But, as I said earlier, one could see the trend of media getting suddenly bold, may be with vengeance at times. I was also part of the media that reported on corruption, scams.

Q: You shifted to PR after a decade in journalism. Wasn't PR a dirty word when you joined this field?

A: Depends on how you look at it. Not all, but some PR people were known to indulge in dirty tricks.

In fact, during my journalism days at UNI, I came across an invitation from a social club mentioning that 'Gifts would be given after the press conference'. When I encountered the PR man concerned on this, his response was: But don't journalists expect gifts?

Q: But when you joined PR, did you not offer gifts to journalists?

A: Ha ha. I began my PR career with a textile tycoon's information unit. The industrialist was known to befriend journalists. During press conferences, the company would dole out expensive gifts like safari suit lengths and sarees for which there was a big demand.

Q: Did you or your team ever try to influence or pressurize the media as part of your PR efforts?

A: The question of pressurising did not arise. The stories dished out by this company would appear the next day with bylines in several leading newspapers.

Q: So, the gift culture continued later?

A: Luckily, no. When we started working at Ogilvy & Mather PR, we all took a conscious decision not to offer any gifts to journalists and to physically check gate-crashers at our press conferences. Fortunately, the trend has changed with the next generation of journalists, most of whom spurn gifts and favours. The only gift they expect is a good story.

Q: What about the relationship between journalists and PR professionals? Is

it still love-hate?

A: I don't see anything wrong in journalists looking for information from PR people. It is the PR professionals' job to facilitate the flow of information. And it is for the journalist to check and cross-check whether the information given by PR is right or wrong or a plant-serving a vested interest.

This is where, sometimes, I feel that the lines between PR and journalism get blurred when some media friends play into the hands of unscrupulous story-planters.

Q: Need a little elaboration on this....

A: In these days of cutthroat competition and race for TRPs, journalists are under constant pressure to score with Breaking News. PR professionals often complain that they do not get enough time to respond to media queries and, as a result, one-sided stories often creep in. Also, it is not easy to get negative stories killed. If you try to suppress it in one publication, it will find its way into another media.

Q: Talking of social media, you said in a recent column that instant media is a constant threat. Why?

A: See, corporate image that has been assiduously built over the years gets dented or even ruined in five seconds with a two-word posting: "XYZ Company/product Sucks". They need to have a 24x7 mechanism not only to react but to take instant corrective measures. This is more important for a consumer brand than any other.

Q: Your company Concept PR is 15 years old. What has been the experience here?

A: I am lucky to have been a witness to rapid changes in this sector. As I said earlier, today we have to deal with situations with great alertness- speedier than thought!

Social media, as TV news anchor Rajdeep Sardesai once told us, has the potential to shake traditional media, PR included. Anybody with a smart phone is a potential journalist.

That's a big challenge to image managers like us.