It cannot be debated that the PR profession has seen an extraordinary ascendancy since the rise in popularity of digital communication and social media. However, there are many leftover ideas from the mass communications era of PR that ended with the social media revolution. The Leslie Roberts situation is an example of this.
The old version of public relations relied on a structured, gate-keeping model of access to the public conversation. It relied on PR experts having relationships with editors, journalists, advertisers and other influencers – on a one-on-one basis. This was true because of the the power that resided in the hands of gatekeepers to the public conversation like Leslie Roberts or Amanda Lang, both of whom face allegations of unethical journalistic behaviour.
The new social media era of interactive media, where consumers of information have become prosumers of information is putting an end to this. In fact, when we saw the low level of interest in the take of Sun Media, it could have been attributed to the fact that the news media no longer had a monopoly on the public conversation.
The fact that Canadians are taking the Leslie Roberts scandal so seriously is more a legacy of the idea of the office of the broadcaster than the actual damage to the public conversation that Leslie Roberts’ alleged unethical booking habits may have caused. The fact is that his was one voice in the Canadian public conversation, growing ever fainter with the advent of more independent journalists and in-house content producers for public, private and not-for-profit organizations.
The most important lesson to be taken from this is that PR ethics are actually becoming more important than journalistic ethics in these days when a dwindling minority of Canadians watch traditional broadcasting news media, and rather turn to blogs, news aggregators, independent journalists and their social media network for news and information.
This does bring to the fore the debate around whether the PR profession should be regulated – like accountants, for whom the CPA designation means that they can perform certain privileged professional operations, or lawyers who need to pass the bar to be able to perform certain duties.
Would regulation help avoid situations like those created by the firm BuzzPR? I think this is an important question to ask.