Jon Klein, the new president of CNN-US division, gave an important speech last week at the National Association of Broadcasters in Las Vegas. The title of his address was “Trust, the Killer App.” He notes with pride that CNN is ranked as the most trusted source of news on television by the Pew Report on media credibility, issued in late 2004. Klein then points out that 53% of Americans doubt the veracity of what they see and hear in the mainstream media.

Klein explains that some of this is attributable to “eroding faith in all institutions” which is corroborated by the findings of the Edelman Trust Barometer, 2005. But he notes that there is an increasing tendency in a world of information overload for people “to cocoon themselves among blogs and talk radio stations and cable channels that reinforce their preconceived notions, so it is easier than ever for them to see bias in any news that doesn’t conform to their particular view of the world.”

He goes on to issue five rules for media to “aggressively do our job.”
1. Report the news–dig up the facts. More information, less entertainment
2. Stay away from opinion in your reporting.
3. Cover what matters–earn trust by indispensability of information put out there
4. Police ourselves, setting standards of behavior and ethics for journalists
5. Be clear about who you are–the way to cut through the cacophony is not to shout above the wind but to listen to the audience

One paragraph in Klein’s speech bothered me all weekend. He says, “Everyone has their moments of hyper-partisanship. But when you combine that with the purposeful bending of reality by the ever more sophisticated corporate PR departments, marketers and politicians, you end up with an environment in which nothing seems to be an objective truth. These propagandists would have you believe there is no such thing as an objective news organization. They accuse the media of fomenting an agenda when they’re the ones paid to do it. They want public discourse run by playground rules–no refs, call your own fouls.”

So we in the PR business are now broadly defined as propagandists. In the past four months coverage of our profession expanded from Armstrong Williams, to issues about sufficient disclosure on video news releases for government agencies, to last week’s Wall Street Journal article about paying journalists to promote products, such as a “geekmeister” to preview the latest tech gadgets. This is what’s happens in a crisis.

We simply can not take ourselves out of the debate about the future of the media. The challenge for us to is to focus our energies on educating the multiple stakeholders who have a vital interest in fair play and making informed decisions. Anything that destroys the credibility and transparency of the media, fundamentally undermines our business.

What will that take?

First, the spotlight is on very specific areas of our activities, and we need to build an accurate profile encompassing all of our work. Let’s talk about our success stories, such as our own work on Microsoft’s Halo 2 launch, where PR was an equal partner with other communications disciplines. As part of this, we need a new set of heroes (which I blogged about earlier.)

Second, the PR business must embrace transparency on funding sources and motives. We can insist that organizations provide greater transparency, no matter how inconvenient is to us or our clients.

Third, we must counter accusations about PR being propaganda. As in any crisis management, you need a good defense as well as offense. We could be bridge building with opinion shapers such as Jon Klein. We need to create the PR 500, a list of opinion leaders who opt to receive weekly updates on the work we are undertaking.

Fourth, we need shortly an enforcement mechanism for sanctioning misbehavior. I am sure that absent this vehicle, we will gradually find our license to operate withdrawn. We are already witnessing our field of play narrowing, such as the “black box” on VNRs suggested by the Federal Communications Commission in its filing of last week.

Fifth, we must do this as an industry, not as a centrifugal group of alphabet soup organizations. The Council of PR Firms, Arthur Page Society, IABC, the Institute for Public Relations etc. can get together as a matter of urgency to formulate rules on behavior.

We have our own work to do at Edelman. We are reviewing our activities and plan to issue our own ethics commitment by mid summer.

As always, I appreciate your thoughts.