Like the perpetual story of "Binge-drinking rises on college campuses," we ignore stories headlined, "Respect for journalists dwindling, study finds."
Who will win the race to the bottom of the public's esteem? The lawyers or the journalists? The new Pew poll says 28 percent of Americans think journalists contribute "a lot" to society, while 18 percent think lawyers contribute a lot.
But lawyers don't need society's admiration to do their job; and no matter how you feel about lawyers, when you need one, if you can afford one, you hire one, and proudly start referring to "my attorney."
Disrespecting journalists, on the other hand, is a self-proving opinion. If sources don't see journalists as a fair and useful way to air their truths, then they don't give reporters the truth. If people in power demonize journalists as bad actors, they don't bother trying to tell their side of the story. And if everyone distrusts journalism as the best knowable version of the truth, then the only stories we read are "50 Fattest Countries," "How Big Is the Average Penis?" and "The Cute Note a Daughter Left for Her Dad" (all plucked from Huffington Post on the day I wrote this).
Who can un-invent butt-chugging?
Who can make people respect journalists?
You—but only if you respect journalists, or at least the idea of journalism, yourself.
When I entered this business two decades ago, PR people appreciated journalists because almost all of them had been journalists, before going to work for organizations who payed them more. Why did organizations hire journalists? Because journalists could write, because journalists understood news, because journalists understood journalists—and because everyone in the organization understood that someone in the organization should be an ombudsman for the outsider's point of view.
Tacit in this whole arrangement was the assumption, believed across the board, that journalists were there, whether you liked them or not. They were always going to be there, because society needed them to be there. So if you didn't want to deal with this reporter, you'd better deal instead with that one. Because your customers, your shareholders, your employees and your local legislators were reading. Usually, in a pinch, the ex-journalists in the PR department recommended talking to the reporter, telling the company's side of the story, rather than stonewalling.
Not that those were any kind of halcyon days. Organizations often ignored the advice of the ex-journalists they hired, and stonewalled anyway. They told reporters half-truths or lies. They spun then as they spin now.
But reporters, and the outside perspectives they brought, were communicated with, and in a way, had representatives inside the organization who could explain to the laser-focused chief executive: It's important to see yourself and your organization as other people do—and to help them understand your point of view.
Now, of course, corporate communication is infinitely (and happily) more dynamic than "publicity" and "media relations," which is mostly what it amounted to two decades ago. There are a million ways to communicate directly with a million constituencies.
But sometimes the shit does hit the fan. Sometimes your constituents need a trusted authority to tell them you're kosher. And sometimes leaders need to try to answer the impertinent questions of a knowledgeable and nosy outsider for their own damn good.
Corporate communicator: Do you still believe in the permanent social purpose of journalism? And are you representing that point of view to your more myopic bosses?
A celebrity publicist friend of mine once told me he advised his own family members not to talk to reporters, because "reporters aren't your friend."
No, reporters aren't your friend, they're everybody's friend. And as citizens, we should do the best we can to give them what they ask for.
I don't expect CEOs to hug reporters. But to call yourself a corporate communicator, I think you have to advocate the idea, however shimmering it may seem today, of the fourth estate.
For the good of your organization. For the good of us all.