SUNDAY MAGAZINE

PR onslaught

Will journalism survive an onslaught of PR? Beginning a fortnightly column on trends and analysis in the media.

SEVANTI NINAN

IN the dark ages, before the selective klieg lights of public relations hit us in the late 1990s, journalism was something you went out and did, minus intermediaries. Your stories did not walk in through the door unless you were Arun Shourie, nor did they get suggested over the phone by seductive strangers. But today the profession is frozen like a rabbit in the full glare of PR's wattage power and it's time to adjust one's lens. I may bridle at the strange young thing who rings up out of the blue and breezily hails me by my first name but it does not help when the company she represents can only be reached through her. Along the way, as journalism became media, advertising sneaked in as PR and proceeded to become part of the woodwork. So and so is going to be in town, would you like to meet him?

The media companies themselves (except assiduous Star) have vanished into ether, reachable only through the public relations firms they hire. If you have any real questions you can hold them — you won't get any answers. Ditto with business houses. Colleagues covering the business beat complain that companies have stopped talking to the press. With the multinationals, it is something which happened long ago. Call them and you'll be fobbed off to the public relations company they have hired.

This began to happen in the West more than a decade ago after business journalism had reached its peak, putting businesses under uncomfortable scrutiny. The power over news became the power to stay out of the news, where the relationship between the business community and the business press was concerned. There may be more media and more publicity than ever before, but when tough questions about a company's methods or bottom line beg asking, access to the decision makers is simply not there.

You wouldn't notice though. Aren't those CEOs (chief executive officers), who are walking on and off CNBC faster than the tea boy can get in through the doorway? Doesn't look like restricted access. No indeed, but pause awhile to listen. The chat is so friendly you'd think anchor and interviewee were in-house colleagues. Tell me Ravi, what is your wish list for this Budget? If it promised to be otherwise, their PR agency would simply not deliver the guys in ties.

I guess one should not be churlish about soft journalism, it does its bit to spread happiness and light. This is the age of PR, and it's great for white collar employment. Just look at the ascendancy graph of the public relations industry in this country. It's annual turnover is now estimated to be Rs. 1,200 crores and growing at 40 to 50 per cent per annum even as advertising is not growing at all. Ad agencies are finding their way out of the drought — they are opening up PR divisions, all the time. Certainly the returns are higher. When persuasion is your main stock in trade, and you don't need to hire creative people and spend money on creating a campaign, margins can be as high as 40 per cent. As for advertising, time was when an agency got 15 per cent commission. Now clients tell them to go take a flying jump. Margins, like the business itself, are shrinking.

In the last five to seven years there has been such a media boom, so much space to fill, that nobody need advertise any more. The growth of public relations is in direct proportion to the ascendance of froth in the Indian media. TV shows are rushing around looking for stars to put on them, so the producer from Mumbai lands up with his stars in tow three days before his film releases in the theatres. His PR agency has the interviews all lined up. There is a pecking order. "If it is NDTV's `Limelight' or `Newshour', or maybe even Aaj Tak, my clients will go to the studio. The rest of the journalists will come to the hotel," says Harish Sharma of H.S. Consultants, which only does movie PR. The day after the film releases, the arts and culture shows on the tube and the city supplements in the leading dailies are full of interviews and profiles. "Instant mileage," says Mr. Sharma.

There was a period when Samir Jain, proprietor of the Times of India, actually ordered a ban on PR representatives entering Times House. Judging by the look of the paper today though, it does not seem like the ban is operative any more. Given how much media there is, the ethics of the whole business is changing. "It is wall to wall PR, Sunil Sethi who anchors "Limelight" on Star News, says sagely. "There is no public life without PR." And it isn't just producers and stars, everybody is on offer, willing to pay a price to the intermediary. A film producer will pay perhaps Rs. 2.5 lakh for public relations for his film during the duration of its making and release. A couple of small TV producers were paying Rs. 15,000 a month to a fixer who got them interviews in the press to publicise their programme on Doordarshan (not including the prices of shirts for the male journalists and salwar suits for the women, which he said would have to be given).

The health sector has also got into the act. Max Healthcare is organised to try and extract mileage from health news. If there is a health news break, their PR agency calls up and asks scribes if they need quotes. Delhi psychiatrist Sanjay Chugh who dispenses sex and sanity advice in city dailies gives PR agencies the go by and just promotes himself. He regularly sends e-mail attachments to journalists with quotes ready and a story line worked out.

And because governments cannot be left behind you have the Himachal Pradesh Government signing a contract with Perfect Relations to tell the public about the development initiatives it has taken, Narendra Modi's Government paying for a white-washing CD Rom to go out to all India Today buyers, and the Andhra Pradesh Government retaining a PR agency for around Rs. 2 crore to handle public relations for the National Games it is hosting, the first time such a contract has been given for the Games.

Will journalism survive this onslaught of PR? Devasis Chattopadhyay, head of Horizon-Porter Novelli, says it will, as reporters and PR people begin to view each other as professionals. Right now in his own profession 80 per cent are quacks, he says, to use a medical analogy. Earlier this year the International Public Relations Association released a survey in London which revealed the widespread incidence of "cash for editorial" and other unethical practices in countries around the world. It was an online survey taken by public relations professionals in 52 countries. Sixty-eight per cent of the respondents from Asia said such a policy is always or usually followed.

In India the divide is already blurred-two top PR men in Delhi, Dilip Cherian and Suhel Seth, are also columnists and TV commentators. PR has become journalism, and journalism has become PR. But the real issue is, which agency should the ordinary people of India retain to get them more space in the media?

E-mail the writer at

sevanti_ninan@yahoo.co.in

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