PR and the MSM

Very interesting piece on here by Paul Graham, who was around in the early days of web start-ups. It’s about how public-relations firms inject memes into the mainstream media for their clinets. In Graham’s words,

PR is not dishonest. Not quite. In fact, the reason the best PR firms are so effective is precisely that they aren’t dishonest. They give reporters genuinely valuable information. A good PR firm won’t bug reporters just because the client tells them to; they’ve worked hard to build their credibility with reporters, and they don’t want to destroy it by feeding them mere propaganda.

If anyone is dishonest, it’s the reporters. The main reason PR firms exist is that reporters are lazy. Or, to put it more nicely, overworked. Really they ought to be out there digging up stories for themselves. But it’s so tempting to sit in their offices and let PR firms bring the stories to them. After all, they know good PR firms won’t lie to them.

Further down, Graham notes that the standard PR methods aren’t working so well with one particular manifestation of new media:

Remember the exercises in critical reading you did in school, where you had to look at a piece of writing and step back and ask whether the author was telling the whole truth? If you really want to be a critical reader, it turns out you have to step back one step further, and ask not just whether the author is telling the truth, but why he’s writing about this subject at all.

Online, the answer tends to be a lot simpler. Most people who publish online write what they write for the simple reason that they want to. You can’t see the fingerprints of PR firms all over the articles, as you can in so many print publications– which is one of the reasons, though they may not consciously realize it, that readers trust bloggers more than Business Week.

I was talking recently to a friend who works for a big newspaper. He thought the print media were in serious trouble, and that they were still mostly in denial about it. “They think the decline is cyclic,” he said. “Actually it’s structural.”

In other words, the readers are leaving, and they’re not coming back.

Why? I think the main reason is that the writing online is more honest. Imagine how incongruous the New York Times article about suits would sound if you read it in a blog:

The urge to look corporate– sleek, commanding, prudent, yet with just a touch of hubris on your well-cut sleeve– is an unexpected development in a time of business disgrace.

The problem with this article is not just that it originated in a PR firm. The whole tone is bogus. This is the tone of someone writing down to their audience.

Whatever its flaws, the writing you find online is authentic. It’s not mystery meat cooked up out of scraps of pitch letters and press releases, and pressed into molds of zippy journalese. It’s people writing what they think.

Good stuff. Check out the rest, and have a look at Graham’s archives while you’re at it.


13 Responses to “PR and the MSM”

  1. Vilmos Soti Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree that Paul Graham’s site is worth to check out. If you want to read the writings of an intelligent and critical man, then read his writings. I especially recommend the “great hackers” essay where he talks about how to handle smart people. Also “beating the averages” describes how they beat everybody else in creating their web software.


  2. Crank Says:

    A lot of professions attract better writers than journalism. With blogs, you can read those people instead of the professional hack journalists.

  3. WitNit Says:

    Credibility in bloggers, especially political bloggers, is built on a foundation of integrity and transparency. On a willingness to advance an informed opinion, entertain immediate criticism and countering opinions, then immediately change one’s mind based on that new information.

    And this fact also points to why the MSM is in trouble. Their foundation has been built on gatekeeping, holding close to the vest, admitting error under duress, backpeddling, evasion, withholding the whole story…

    …and now they are forced to be transparent. Poor, poor MSM. We’re so sorry. Let’s shed a tear for the MSM.


    Monkey Wrench

    A fascinating piece on how PR firms feed the media and why blogging worries them. Online, the answer tends to be a lot simpler. Most people who publish online write what they write for the simple reason that they want…

  5. jd watson Says:

    These comments fail to deal with the critical issue. PR people have managed to easily manipulate the MSM and will undoubtedly try to do the same with the blogs. How will the Blogosphere be any different, and what will bloggers do to avoid this temptation?

  6. Nick Says:

    It’s not just PR firms for companies either… its non-profit organizations putting out studies without providing raw data. The MSM simply republishes their press releases as fact. Drives me insane… especially since the motives of those groups are so transparent.

  7. Miss O'Hara Says:

    Terrific article, as is the one on the PR Association’s website (that one is, yes, a bit amusing).

    I do wonder how/if bloggers will deal with PR and other media agencies who will, eventually, catch on to blogging. Right now (I work at a big ad agency), they ignore it, thinking it is just a fun little fad. I don’t think this mindset will last long, though, at least within smarter companies. At that point, they might start nosing around bloggers a little bit more in the hopes of advancing their…er… ’cause.’

  8. john Says:

    About PR and blogging…

    I think the article makes plain the author’s opinion on how blogging will deal with it – by changing their writing style. It’s plain that the author believes the driving force behind blogs is that the opinions expressed seem genuine rather than fake. “PR bloggers” will have to match that genuine feel in order to grab and maintain a decent readership.

    Businesses, on the other hand, can bypass or supplement the PR companies by sending free samples to prominent bloggers, who then (hopefully honestly) blog about their experience.

    See, e.g., Instapundit’s posts about cameras, cars, razors, not to mention the books he’s reviewing constantly. If his readership tries the products he recommends and finds them lacking, their level of trust goes down and his usefulness as a direct-advertiser would fall-off, and he’d find himself with less free stuff in the mail. If his recommendations are exceptionally good, he builds up more trust, which should increase readership and reader response to his future recommendations (increasing the likelihood that he’d get more free stuff from people who want him to spread the word).

    Even if he doesn’t get much free stuff, he does maintain and grow his readership and reputation – both non-monetary perks in their own right as well as revenue-increasing measures by increasing the value of advertising on his site.

    Other bloggers who buy on Glenn’s recommendation can comment as well, giving a further boost to a good product or further hurting Glenn’s rep by spreading the word if he makes a bad recommendation. The whole system reinforces honesty in a lot of ways.

    Glenn (among others), I think, understands this pretty well.

  9. Allan Yackey Says:

    Trying to predict where the Old Media will go in the face of the Blogging onslaught is going to be very difficult. The signs of change are all around, but the forces that are causing all of the changes are diverse.

    The Old Media is almost entirely a commercial enterprise. Historically it has lived or died under the rules of the market. All of the things about the market, good or bad have been applicable to the Old Media, including the bad effects of practical monopolies or oligopolies. In most markets the most competitive that the Old Media could ever come was the oligopoly. This was true whether it was print media or airwaves.

    On the airwaves, the myth about restricted radio spectrum led to not more than three operational networks. With the print media, the large costs of startup and initial operation means that there cannot be many newspapers in any area. Having a handle on the spigot of news and political commentary is not functionally different than Standard Oil holding a monopoly on oil at the beginning of the 20th Century.

    Government laws broke up the Standard Oil monopoly, but because of First Amendment considerations that was not possible with the press. But the business considerations are all still there.

    With the arrival of the Internet a whole new phenomena arrived. It is different than cable or satellite, because while those introduced some additional competition, they are still subject to market financial forces. They have to have a source of revenue from their product to keep writing.

    The oft quoted frustrated outburst

  10. Nate Says:

    Be careful reading his essays, you might feel the uncontrollable urge to learn Lisp. Beware the parentheses!

  11. The Myopist Says:

    MOO! MOO, MOO MOO MOO!!!!!

    I am no doubt simply perpetuating a pernicious corporate meme, here – at least, that’s the way that Snopes is betting, and those boyos must see every sufficiently weird-ass thing on the Internet that isn’t actual porn* – but I

  12. mrsizer Says:

    Re: PR firms and Bloggers

    In addition to the ratings type of feedback effect mentioned above, there is the critical distinction between _a_ blog and the blogsphere.

    Any single blog may be “corrupted” by PR, or even started entirely for PR purposes, but the wonder of blogs is that they do not exist in isolation. It won’t take long for a corrupted blog to die – or for its author to be laughed and ridiculed into non-existence (is that a word?).

  13. Reclaim Your Brain Says:

    Take Note

    VodkaPundit’s Will Collier has lined up 4 great reads over the weekend. …

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