DURHAM – A week ago, our colleagues at newspapers across the country took a stand for a free and unfettered press. They stood up for the vitally important First Amendment guarantee of free speech. They proudly defended their profession and its role in our society.

Did I say “colleagues”? Yes. We who are public relations practitioners, public affairs people and communicators of various stripes consider journalists to be our colleagues. We form a critical partnership that keeps the public informed. We depend on the media, and we believe they depend on us. We are their sources of information, their contacts. They are our connection to the public; even though these days we have other routes to communicate with the people, an independent press is still the most credible and important.

Are we always happy with our friends in the media? Of course not. Do we sometimes wish they wouldn’t ask certain questions? Of course. But in 35 years of practice, I have never once heard anyone in my business suggest that journalists didn’t have the right to ask tough questions and cover the news fully as they see fit. I’ve had clients and employers suggest that, but never one of my public relations colleagues.

I believe that one of the essential personality characteristics for being in this line of work is to be a “news junkie.” We can’t get enough. We understand that there are journalists of varying levels of talent, and that not all have the same level of integrity. It’s the same on this side of the partnership. We believe that the media are largely self-policed, and that shoddy or inaccurate work is not tolerated. In the same way, we have turned our backs on members of our profession who do not adhere to high ethical standards.

This isn’t about politics. I don’t care where you fall on the political spectrum, who you support or how you vote. What I care about is that you don’t try to restrict the press, and that you don’t take a broad brush and smear its work and those who do it. I have heard people who have never even met a journalist say that they’re all dishonest purveyors of “fake news” and “click bait.” Those of us who have met and worked with them know the truth: They’re mostly honest, hardworking, smart people. Some of them see their work as a calling, and approach it with that frame of mind.

The original use of the term “Fourth Estate” as a synonym for the news media came from England, and referred to the significance of the media as an unofficial but important fourth branch of the body politic (the other three being the Crown, the House of Commons and the House of Lords). The key has always been that it is not a branch of government, but rather an independent voice.


Ironically, the events of last week also included the loss of a highly respected Maine journalist, Chris Cousins of the Bangor Daily News. I never had the opportunity to work with him, but listening to those who did, I can tell you this: He was no “enemy of the people.”

Here’s what James McCarthy had to say in Mainebiz: “Like many of his colleagues throughout Maine, I could barely make it through the afternoon without breaking down in tears. Fact is, I didn’t. … I was particularly struck by the comments of those who expressed how generous Chris had been in sharing his hard-won wisdom with them about the intricacies of covering State House politics. Sure, there’s competition among journalists. But there’s also a higher purpose: The common good.”

The common good. That’s what the best of journalists and the best of public relations practitioners have in common. Ours is not always a cozy relationship, but it has to be respectful.

We may disagree with them at times. We will disagree with them at times. We will call them to correct the facts of a story. We will vigorously represent our clients and employers. But we will never sit by and watch the media silenced. Make no mistake: A free press is a two-edged sword. But we dull or sheathe that sword at our peril as a free people.

So for us, we stand with our colleagues.


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