Submariners of mainstream media

Quentin pointed me at this terrific essay about the PR industry by Paul Graham. Sample:

PR is not dishonest. Not quite. In fact, the reason the best PR firms are so effective is precisely that they aren’t dishonest. They give reporters genuinely valuable information. A good PR firm won’t bug reporters just because the client tells them to; they’ve worked hard to build their credibility with reporters, and they don’t want to destroy it by feeding them mere propaganda.

If anyone is dishonest, it’s the reporters. The main reason PR firms exist is that reporters are lazy. Or, to put it more nicely, overworked. Really they ought to be out there digging up stories for themselves. But it's so tempting to sit in their offices and let PR firms bring the stories to them. After all, they know good PR firms won’t lie to them.

A good flatterer doesn’t lie, but tells his victim selective truths (what a nice color your eyes are). Good PR firms use the same strategy: they give reporters stories that are true, but whose truth favors their clients.

For example, our PR firm often pitched stories about how the Web let small merchants compete with big ones. This was perfectly true. But the reason reporters ended up writing stories about this particular truth, rather than some other one, was that small merchants were our target market, and we were paying the piper.

It’s a terrific article, full of uncomfortable insights (and often bringing up echoes of what Nick Davies found when researching his book, Flat Earth News). The peg for the piece was a spate of stories on the theme “The suits are back”. The general tenor of the meme was that it was no longer tech-chic to wear jeans and tee-shirts. (which of course is baloney.) Paul Graham did some detective work based on spotting common phrases in the various ‘suit’ stories and found that they all led back to the original client — an outfitter chain called The Men’s Wearhouse.