Sunday, November 20, 2005

Looking Back: Thinking Forward - Part 5 

This is part 5 of an extended article reviewing early blog entries and what I have learned from them.

New Communications Technologies

Technology is changing communications and PR. Old PR ideas still work, but we need to adapt them. New ideas present challenges we could not have anticipated. The first technology entry on (10/08/02) dealt with a topic that is now changing Hollywood economics – digital video.

I was surprised then to read in Monday's Los Angeles Times that 30 percent of the prime-time shows are being shot in digital video this year -- over the objections of cinematographers. Discovery Channel switched 50 crews from film to video. The reason? Cost. Even a skinny two percent savings is enough to drive change, which says a lot about Hollywood economics. The purpose of telling this story … is to illustrate how digital sweeps everything before it, including the original form of movie making. As PR practitioners, we need to be sensitive to changes that can help us work better, faster and cheaper.

By (12/10/2002), I noted a prediction that camera-equipped cell phones would change journalism. I remarked on the speed online journalism’s entry into the mainstream (1/09/2003), as well as another attempt at electronic paper (5/12/2003). The penetration of broadband (5/23/2003) and the rise of IP telephony (6/10/2003) are topics I have returned to because both change how practitioners operate. The pain of adapting to new technologies also found its way into the blog (1/05/2004) when I used a personal example of shifting to digital photography and the equipment it required. Finally, I rocked my hobbyhorse and deplored the reluctance of PR practitioners to adapt to new technologies (9/25/2003) – a long-time issue dating to the rise of personal computers.

Knowledge of communications technology is an important part of PR practitioners’ learning. Practitioners who do not adapt put themselves at risk: Those who do demonstrate the flexibility needed in a new communications world. For that reason, it is an area I will continue to cover.

Objectivity and ethics

We see too many examples of ethically challenged CEOs, officials, reporters and PR people who twist facts. We observe reporters, editors and PR practitioners fail to check facts before publishing them.

Each time there is a failure in which PR is involved, it diminishes the PR discipline. Unfortunately, more failures than successes get into the news, so PR always seems on the defensive (4/29/2003) about objectivity and ethics. It doesn’t help that traditional media dislike PR practitioners, nor does it help that traditional media themselves have become less strict about facts and more liberal about interpreting facts or rendering opinions. Advocacy journalism -- especially with blogs – has skyrocketed and influenced the most recent Presidential campaign. The editorial era in which we work hearkens back to stand-offs between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians under George Washington. Objectivity and ethics have taken a pummeling, but they are at the core of credibility and reputation.

This is why on (9/26/2002), I wrote of my concern over reporters writing blogs, and why PR practitioners should be worried as well.

I do not believe any reporter committed to objective reporting of events should have a blog for venting unedited opinion. And, that reporter definitely should not be allowed to blog opinions on events he or she is reporting as a part of a regular journalism job. The loss of credibility would be too great. Imagine a journalist writing a story in a newspaper on the mayor then typing in his blog that the "mayor is a dork." The same holds true for PR practitioners. You cannot blog in isolation. What you say in a blog reflects on your work. It can compromise your reputation for accuracy and straight dealing. Blogs are public statements. What you write in an online diary is open to all. Be consistent with yourself. Never say in a blog what you would not write elsewhere.

Spin concerns me (6/16/2003, 10/16/2002) and the compulsion some practitioners have for practicing truth-shading. It gives PR a bad name. Objectivity, what it means and how one should deal with a principle that can never fully be reached, is a topic PR dares not dismiss (10/18/2002, 7/21/2003). I believe one must strive for impartiality even though it is impossible to reach. Others don’t.

The question of objectivity is an issue in newsrooms and among PR people. The cynical view is no one can truly be objective so why bother? That view ends in credibility problems quickly. An extreme view is that one can be objective like Joe Friday in Dragnet who asked for "Just the facts, Mam." We know that isn't right either because every human has a set of mental filters built on a wide range of factors -- education, experience, biases, environment and more --, and there is a need to set facts into context so one can understand their relevance.

Allied to considerations of objectivity and ethics is the need for free-ranging discussion of ideas in PR, as well as a humility and openness to new concepts (12/09/2002, 3/18/2003) rather than getting trapped into behavior, a common failure among communicators and marketers (1/16/2004). It is a sad fact that communicators can box themselves in and never see what they miss.

Because objectivity and ethics are inflammatory and issues that can damage PR, they need to be discussed regularly and more deeply than I have done. Unfortunately, examples of practitioners’ ethical behavior rarely find their way into news stories, but I believe there are more good examples than bad. Here is where I would like to hear from PR practitioners who deal with these issues day-in and day-out. Further, it is past time for PR executives to get out front on ethical issues and to take a stand that pushes back against a “sleaze-ball” image when it is justified to do so. (Regrettably, some of the largest PR agencies have been involved in ethical misbehavior and have little credibility, nor do their executives seem inclined to speak.)


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