There exists among certain interest groups in Barbados, especially the “political class”, a fairly common but erroneous view that the media’s role includes performing a public relations function on their behalf.
We saw a good example of this last weekend when Attorney General Adriel Brathwaite publicly chided the local media for not defending the international business sector in the wake of the damaging Panama Papers scandal.
“There is nothing in our media that supports the sector . . . ,” he complained, echoing the view that reflects an expectation journalists always are to present the issues of interest groups in a most favourable light.
Politicians, especially when in Government, are well known for taking this stance. They complain, every so often, about the number of “positive” things happening for which they claim credit. They accuse the media of ignoring these issues and focusing only on what they consider negative.
It is not a fair criticism. The media do provide positive coverage of a lot of success stories involving people doing great things. They also highlight a lot of what local politicians do.
What politicians consider negative often stems from the fact that they are viewing the issue from the standpoint of self-interest. Their “negative”, however, can be “positive” sometimes from a journalistic standpoint, especially when the public interest is taken into account. For the media, the public interest, especially the right to know, is paramount.
The media’s job is to hold a mirror up on society and to report what is there in a fair, balanced and impartial manner. Practising PR, which has an inherent bias, would compromise the editorial integrity and independence of the media.
Engaging in damage control, which the Attorney General is implicitly asking of the media on behalf of the offshore financial sector, falls under public relations. The appropriate entities to take the lead in this regard are the Government of Barbados and the international business sector.
An intervention of this kind naturally would attract news coverage.
Brathwaite’s concern really should be the international media that influence the perceptions of decision-makers in major foreign capitals like Ottawa and Washington. They are the ones with the power to make or break the offshore financial sector. The local media are powerless in this regard.
Since what politicians describe as “positive” coverage often amounts to practising public relations, it is advisable they hire the services of public relations professionals, or make more effective use of the Government Information Service (GIS) that is there to highlight and build awareness of the positive things taking place within Government.
As the media are always on the lookout for interesting stories, opportunities exist for positive stories involving politicians. However, the onus is on the politicians or persons acting on their behalf to make the right pitch of the story idea, emphasizing an angle the media find interesting.
If truth must be told, a lot of people seeking news coverage often do not know how to pitch a story to excite a news editor’s or reporter’s interest. They simply call up asking for coverage at such and such a place at such and such a time.
Around the world, various interests are recognizing that if they wish to have their “positive” stories told, they must have the necessary resources.
As a result, they are engaging the services of skilled professionals to handle all aspects of their communications.
The advantage of hiring such professionals is that they often would have had working experience as journalists, understand what constitutes news, are in a position to build effective relationships with media houses, and can write and submit stories to editors for consideration, instead of requesting a journalist to come out and do so.
Barbados has a lot of catching up to do in this regard. Provision is made in the Government’s budget for ministers and MPs to hire political aides. They should be performing the PR function for their bosses.
The media cannot practise journalism and PR at the same time. In such an obvious case of conflict of interest, the media will have to choose which one to love and which one to despise.