Broadly speaking, journalism is about finding the truth. Public relations, on the other hand, is about presenting a person, company, agency or institution in the best light possible.
For instance, let’s say your college decides to raise the cost of tuition. The college’s PR department will no doubt issue a press release that will probably talk about the increase being modest but necessary, and how, even with the hike, the school remains affordable.
All of that may be perfectly true, but chances are the college’s press release won’t include any quotes from – you guessed it – the students. Not surprisingly, the students who will have to pay for the increased cost of tuition won’t be happy. And they are likely to say things like – you guessed it again – “this sucks.”
Now let’s imagine that you’re a reporter for the student newspaper at this college and you’ve been assigned to write an article about the tuition increase. You may use the press release as a starting point for basic information, and talk to college officials who are knowledgeable about why tuition costs what it does.
But the other thing you’ll do – which the college’s PR department won’t do – is interview plenty of students. After all, they are the ones who will be the most affected by this issue.
That’s the difference. Journalists seek to discover and convey the truth, good, bad or otherwise. And as the saying goes, the truth hurts, or at the very least is often unpleasant. But journalists don’t worry about that because they aren’t trying to put a positive spin on the news. That’s not their job.
But portraying things positively is the job of public relations, and as I’m sure you’ve figured out, there is an inherent conflict between conveying the truth and trying to make things look good.
That’s why journalists and public relations people – reporters call them flacks – often come into conflict. Journalists want to dig down and find out what’s really going on in the world, while PR people often want to sanitize the news, to the point where the language they use tries to whitewash what is really going on.
Here’s a classic example: In 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart shortly after takeoff, killing all seven crew members. It was a horrific disaster, broadcast live on television nationwide.
Yet NASA, in a bizarre attempt to somehow portray those events in the best light possible, described the Challenger tragedy as an “anomaly.” The remains of the dead astronauts were referred to as “recovered components.” And their body parts were placed in what the space agency called “crew transfer containers.”
The lesson for journalists is clear. While reporters often have to work with PR people in order to dig up news stories, they must be careful not to fall into a public relations mindset that attempts to shield the public from harsh realities.
And when writing their stories, journalists should use language that precisely describes what has happened, and avoid using euphemisms or jargon that distorts reality.