PR executives believe that theirs is “earned media” not “paid media” like advertising is. Earned media includes news content featuring or sourcing your brand, products, or services. Earned media coverage comes from media relations when an outlet includes your company, product, service, expert, opinion, or ideas in a news story (online, print, radio, TV, podcast, etc.). It’s when a newspaper or industry trade publication (blog, magazine, or website) features your brand or quotes your expert. It’s appearing on a TV morning show or the evening news. It’s what most people think of when they think of PR. Some might call it “publicity.”
Traditionally, most PR companies have viewed themselves as those who try to influence the media to buy what they are saying. An important part of a PR executive’s job is also damage control. Negative news about an organisation or a person they are managing has to be dealt with by them tactfully, so as to ensure that public continues to believe in the brand. The Public Relations Society of America shortlisted this one as the most appropriate definition of Public Relations. It agreed that, “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organisations and their publics.”
How much of this relationship is “mutually beneficial” can often be called into question. Says PR executive Aanchal Tripathi who manages fashion-beauty blogger Nikita Madhani, “Let’s say someone is looking to buy a lipstick out of the many thousands of brands that are there in the market. Apart from consulting a Vogue or another similar beauty magazine, they can just go to Madhani’s blog and see what she recommends. When I took up Madhani’s PR, she was already an established blogger, however, she wanted to reach out to more and more people. She wanted to bolster her influence. When a journalist quotes her in a beauty or a fashion article or she writes articles on similar topics in a leading paper or magazine, then even those people who are not on social media get to know her.”
Says a PR and Communications expert who did not want to be named, “Today a lot of individuals and companies across professions necessarily hire publicists in order to fan their egos. They want to generate hype about themselves, and often suffer from low self-esteem. So many actors are known today because of the media and the kind of publicity they get. There is so much PR that goes into it. However, at the end of the day, no amount of PR is going to help if his or her performance is bad. Today because of the might of the pen, everything is known to everyone. A celebrity’s cat sneezes and it will be in the press. That’s one more story.”
We have seen politicians on TV and in the newspaper, across photographs and videos that are notoriously dubbed as photo ops. We wonder how much of that imagery is genuine and how much of it is an attempt to get eyeballs. Today there is a pessimism about everything because we wonder how much of the information we are getting is a politician’s PR machinery working overtime.
Communicating information, governmental plans and policies is one thing, however, manipulations and attempts to cover up or keep truth hidden is a different story altogether. When a narrative is spun around the idea of “either you are with us or against us” and jingoistic nationalism through WhatsApp forwards and memes, or through posts on social media that overlook objectivity entirely, then one imagines that there is an unrecognised force behind it all. The kind that has so far been successful in making misconceptions and wrongful ideas go viral.
In the case of companies such as Gitanjali Gems, whose promoter Mehul Choksi is absconding, hype and a massive PR exercise led to its rise. “The diamonds sold were substandard and their value was not commensurate with the price they were sold at. And a massive fall has ensued as well,” continues the aforementioned PR expert.
Newspaper supplements such as the Bombay Times and the HT Café state upfront, on the front page itself, that they are advertorial and promotional features. This can be interpreted to mean that their content could have been paid for, “either in cash or kind”, going by the general definition of what “paid news” is. Thus a trend of subtly (or not sometimes) weaving information that is “paid-for content” into daily news has set in. Sometimes we are unable to decipher when, how and where – such is the ambiguousness and opacity of the trend. When such a trend leads to doubts being cast even on serious news, then maybe we are at a stage where the media will have to rethink its strategies and its relationship with PR specialists and advertisers. The expert we spoke to joked about the state of the media today saying, “A cockroach can survive a nuclear holocaust it’s that resilient, but roll up a newspaper and hit the cockroach with it, it’s dead, the newspaper is so toxic.”