The Dark side

Meejit travels into the murky world of PR.

The Dark Side – that's what journalists call public relations (PR). It's not that we don't recognise the close links between our profession and theirs – the nickname arises precisely in recognition of the powerful career temptation that PR represents and the fine line that separates us: "You know [So and So]? He's gone over to the Dark Side."

Journalists are, on the face of it, a cynical lot. Amongst ourselves, there is a private culture that discourages self-praise and bland moralising – despite public appearances to the contrary. Making the contrast between journalism and PR (aka "fuckin' PR") is one of the few acceptable ways within that culture for journalists to hoist a flag of ethics over our profession, an exercise that would otherwise seem self-righteous and naïve.

Few journalists, in all honesty, see their workaday lives as a series of earnest and unfettered endeavours to seek and tell the truth. Still, those lives can genuinely look like that when contrasted to our image of PR: getting paid to speak on behalf of a particular client, lying if necessary. And yet how accurate can this contrast be, when all over the academic world PR is a sister discipline to journalism – and often a rather incestuous sister who crosses the divide?

Add to that blurring of the line the obvious fact that we don't take up a light-sabre to challenge (So and So) when he crosses it; on the contrary, we shrug our shoulders, stay friends and offer what help we can with his clients.


Across the border

A corollary of the contempt for PR among journalists is the idea that any of us could do it, if only these damn ethics didn't block the ascent to the PR pig's back. PR specialists regard this notion as rubbish, insisting their profession requires special skills and training.

Although naturally suspicious of all professional claims to specific expertise outside, say, astrophysics and chemical engineering, I am willing to accept that PR may be tougher than it looks. Apart from anything else, journalists' contempt must cause difficulties.

These thoughts are prompted by my own experiences last week, when I became in effect a part-time public-relations officer – and had to cope with, among other things, my own contempt. My task was to convince media outlets to cover the visit to Ireland of three former US soldiers, one-time Abu Ghraib interrogators who are now anti-war activists and were leading a Saturday protest at Shannon. I was not getting paid; it was part of my activism with the group Anti-War Ireland (AWI). But since I'm sure PRs are often genuinely enthusiastic about their clients, the fact of my commitment does not negate the PRishness of the work.


Exposing the truth

Of course I've done bits of this sort of thing before. Few journalists haven't made a phone-call or two on behalf of friends or causes. What made this briefly different was the intense media interest in the veterans my AWI comrades and I were "handling", up to and including the ne plus ultra for any Irish PR, The Late Late Show. A booking on the Late Late must be the ultimate labour-saver for PRs: if you get on that show, you can't really do other media beforehand – the programme wants its guests as "fresh" and unexposed as possible – and other media are sure to be interested afterward.

The Late Late's prolonged interest didn't materialise into a booking, a decision we received on the Wednesday afternoon, prompting a frantic 24 hours of plugging and juggling for media positions on Thursday and Friday. For some reason it was almost entirely, exhaustingly successful with broadcasters – allowing for the internal rivalries within RTÉ – and drew a complete blank with print media.

I think Stephen, Tony and Joshua touched thousands of listeners and viewers. But, not for the first time, I also think the media missed a better story: on Saturday a couple of hundred demonstrators walked through a misty Clare afternoon, led by those three pained men, who carried a symbolic coffin along with Ciaron O'Reilly, one of the acquitted Shannon Five. They laid it in front of the Garda barricades that blocked our route to the airport, and we covered it with flowers. It was a moment of devastating political and moral truth – and this time, when the media ignored it, I felt responsible.