The View

‘Spin doctors’ and the PR business – an uneasy combination

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2015, 12:48pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 September, 2015, 12:48pm

One of the world’s fastest growing industries is achieving growth through stealth; this is all the more surprising because this industry’s very purpose is communication.

The 2015 World Public Relations Report, covering the industry’s larger companies, shows that the industry grew by 7 per cent last year, following on from 11 per cent growth in 2013. There has been an almost unbroken pattern of growth despite setbacks that inflicted considerable damage on other sectors.

According to the Global Public Relations Agencies Market Report, revenues of international PR companies reached a record US$14 billion last year, but this figure is just the tip of the iceberg because it does not include earnings from the much broader range of non-international companies.

The United States was a pioneer in this industry, although a strong case can be made for the pioneering work of the Christian churches, dating back many centuries. The USA however is where the business of public relations has been endlessly refined.

In Asia, anecdotal evidence plus a clutch of academic studies shows that the industry’s growth is even higher than in Europe and North America. This is partly explained by the relative newness of Asian PR companies; for example, the first public relations agency in China only opened its doors in 1984. Hong Kong and Singapore, as ever, vie for supremacy in the regional industry and, significantly, both places are homes to unusually large government PR operations.

So, there can be little doubt about the growth of the spin doctors’ trade and it is matched by a marked decline in the employment of journalists to the extent, already seen in the United States where there are more than four times the number of people spinning the news than producing it for media outlets.

A British government report, released this month, shows a remarkable increase of nearly 50 per cent in the number of people employed in PR in the past two years. However the UK lags well behind the US as employment in journalism exceeds jobs in PR, but only just.

In some respects this is farcical but it also shows how business is responding to the growing clamour for accountability. Another explanation is more businesslike, which is that companies believe that dollar for dollar, PR is more effective than advertising.

Unfortunately in Asia some of this effectiveness is achieved by methods that cross the line of bribery on the wrong side. Tales of money filled packets being passed to reporters at press conferences are legion across the border. At a more subtle level, it is quite commonplace to see reporters being feted with lavish meals and given gifts. This is the norm in Asia in ways that are now regarded as being unacceptable elsewhere.

The public relations industry tends to be coy about its very name, which has resulted in many companies in the sector describing themselves as ‘corporate communications specialists’ and, as we travel down the line of synonyms, we get to descriptions such as ‘image specialists’.

Governments are equally coy over their PR activities, in Hong Kong the government’s PR department, previously known as the Government Information Services department has now dropped the word ‘Government’ from its title while it’s chief spokesman is called the ‘Information Coordinator’.

This coyness in calling a spade, a spade reflects an underlying unease about the spin-doctors’ trade. While communication is clearly necessary there is also awareness that spinning the news is perhaps a rather dubious way of making a living. The problem, as ever, is where to draw the line between spinning that distorts the news and the conveyance of real information.

The dangers multiply in a situation where the recipients of the spinner’s work are reduced in number and sheer exhaustion and lack of resources results in media organisations taking PR output at face value without recourse to the required level of verification that it is needed to achieve truly independent journalism.

Many journalists leave the industry and join PR companies where pay levels are higher. They bring along an understanding of how media organisations work and how they can be manipulated.

Nowadays the most insidious forms of PR often come from official sources where unattributable briefings are the norm and misleading information goes mainstream as the spin doctors get to work putting their gloss on stories while being careful to do so without having to put their name to the misinformation they are spreading.

Corporate entities have not been slow to see the value of employing these tactics and they do so in the knowledge that reporters are increasingly hard pressed to produce stories in media outlets that have shrinking resources. Here lies the dangers of an industry that is not intrinsically dangerous but can become so.


Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster