Hackery and PR: Where’s the common ground?

Hackery and PR: Where’s the common ground?

Like many ex-hacks, I have moved between journalism and public relations and back, desperately trying to make a living without actually committing a felony.  I liked journalism better because, as Stanley Baldwin put it, I had the power without the responsibility.  But I recently came across the rest of that 1931 quote – “… the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages”.

Now hang on a minute. I thought the PR people were the harlots and the journalists were the honourable ones. More likely, it seems, we are all wrapped up together in related pursuits.

When put to the test, which comes out better? I am not sure.

I became an expert at cutting corners, informationwise, in order to get my news out the door first.  I worked nine years for  a news agency and had my share of newsbeats. It was a competitive world and we were marginally better than our competitor, whose spoof motto was, “We’re never first but we’re always wrong.”

And then moving into PR in London I was almost daily obliged to compromise what few principles I had left.

A couple of sharp suits at a big PR machine in London showed me the ropes.

I first learned that writing is the secret weapon of the ex-hack. Precisely the same skill, minus any inconvenient truths, is applicable here. One big difference: I was paid about 50p to do a news item but to produce a one-page press release the client was typically billed for a day and a half.

Once settled into my comfortable office I came to terms with my new world.  I managed to maintain a modicum of integrity. There were only a few exceptions:

  • Convincing the public that second-hand cigarette smoke was harmless, possibly even beneficial.
  • Telling the media that a doomed communications company was perfectly healthy and would soon be “farming the profits”. It eventually went bust as I scurried away.
  • Trying to persuade journalists that an American company had magic software to help banks make even more money. Only one person turned up at my press conference. She looked about 17. She ate the cookies but wrote nothing.
  • Taking money from a client whose aim in life was to see his name in the International Herald Tribune. The paper died before we could persuade the editors to run some “survey” his staff dreamed up. Amazingly, he paid our fee.

But generally speaking I felt I could live ethically with good PR. I defined it as helping companies put their best foot forward without stretching the truth.  If the other foot was dragging behind, I hoped nobody would notice.

It was surprising how often my fellow hacks did not.  They were more interested in applying for a job like mine.

Article date

December 7th, 2014

Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is an international writer and journalist based in Bordeaux.

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