PR Pros and News Media: Truth Emerges from Tension

Social media have forever changed the way information is disseminated and shared. The relationship between public relations professionals, whose job it is to reach audiences with their organizations’ messages, and the news media, who own many of the communication channels, has always been tense because of the sometimes conflicting agendas and a degree of distrust between the parties.

That tension is healthy in a free society. It’s not that one side is right and good and the other is wrong and bad. It’s more an issue of checks and balances. Our systems of free enterprise and a free press work best when no single entity holds all the power and control.

Recently, law enforcement leaders from around the country came to Richmond for the sixth annual Social Media, the Internet and Law Enforcement (SMILE) conference. Through panel discussions and workshop sessions they learned how to use social media — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms — to reach the public directly with their information. Organizations around the world, from for-profit corporations to nonprofits to government agencies, increasingly use social media as a way to engage with their audiences and to share information.

This is a positive development because, especially in a free society, information must flow freely. Truth emerges from transparency. However, as we see every day on television, radio and the Internet, it is sometimes difficult to discern the truth from all the information that is out there. After all, our system of the free flow of information depends on some degree of honesty and fairness from both the press and providers of information including public relations professionals.

The Public Relations Society of America has a code of ethics that it expects its members to follow. Among its principles are the protection and advancement of the free flow of accurate and truthful information and honesty and accuracy in all communications. Ethical practitioners of public relations will adhere to these principles, but as with any profession, there are those who will test the boundaries or outright ignore them.

Likewise, the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics encourages reporters and editors to test the accuracy of information they receive and to distinguish between advocacy and journalism. Ethical journalists will engage in balanced reporting, but of course there are journalists who will skew toward one party or another.

We should expect that the free marketplace of ideas will weed out the unethical public-relations practitioners and the biased journalists.

When it comes to information the public has a right to know, a free and independent press plays a crucial role. That’s why remarks from Rick Clark, the police chief in Galax, Va., who was a panelist at the SMILE conference, disturbed me. While he was correct in encouraging law enforcement agencies not to hide from the truth and to tell the bad news along with the good, he also apparently feels that a town with no independent press is a good thing. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s story about the conference, “Clark said he was lucky to work in a town without a daily newspaper or television station. He said he thought his department’s website was his town’s news source, at least on police information.”

Even in the age of social media, no organization — especially a government organization — should attempt to be the public’s sole source of information. While I would hope Clark’s department adheres to the standards of ethical public relations, he should appreciate the vital role that a free and independent press also plays in disseminating information the public needs to know.

Without a doubt, social media present an opportunity to put more information in the hands of more people. Social media also give organizations a chance to interact directly with their stakeholders — whether they are consumers, stockholders, government agencies or other businesses. However, we should also embrace the positive tension that exists between organizations and the press. It is that tension through which the truth emerges.


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