Gatekeeper v. amateurs

The powerful — the rich and the elected — used to be the gatekeepers to information. Then, with the advent of mass media, journalists took over that role. They were the gatekeepers to the public. A few decades ago, for reasons I’ll go into in a moment, PR people got to become gatekeepers to news because they controlled access to the famous, rich, and powerful. But now that we are entering the age of the amateur — when no one can hold a monopoly on the tools of information — I hope we will witness the death of the gatekeeper. We’ll see.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’m appearing on Howie Kurtz’ Reliable Sources this morning with PR mogul and blogger Richard Edelman to talk about the Walmart story. And so I’ve been mulling what he and fellow flack Andy Plesser said in the Observer: Edelman said that journalists “are not God anymore” and Plesser said that PR people are “the gatekeepers for news and information.” They’re both right but I hope they’ll both soon be wrong.

I witnessed the rise of the power of PR in the mid-80s, when the rest of media changed thanks to the humble remote control. That was when the clicker passed 50 percent penetration in American homes and, with the cable box and the VCR. Big media laments the resulting “fragmentation,” but I celebrate this instead as choice. The result, in any case, was a much more competitive landscape in media, which made it much more difficult to both reach and control large audiences.

Media became much more competitive and complex. I was the TV critic for People magazine then, lucky enough to witness this shift. Before I got there, before the remote took over, all you had to do to have a hit on the newsstand was to put a Top 10 show on the cover. But suddenly, that didn’t happen anymore — because the audience was no longer captive to a choice among only three networks. My editor and mentor at People, Pat Ryan, was known to shout at me from down the hall when disappointing sales results for TV covers came in: “TV’s dead, Jarvis, dead!” So the magazine made a shift, concentrating more on the events in the stars’ lives than in their careers: births, marriages, diseases, deaths. I said it was the birth of bodily fluids journalism.

At that moment, PR people realized just how valuable their stars’ images and stories were to magazine sales. At that moment, they became the gatekeepers: ‘If you want my star, you’re going to guarantee a cover or let us pick reporters or pictures or even questions and if you don’t want my star, I’ll go across the street to all the other magazines that are desperately using celebrity to support their sales and they’ll do what I want.’

The same thing happened in politics, where they became much savvier about controlling the message. In George Bush’s White House, we see the highest form of this art of gatekeeping. As Jay Rosen has pointed out frequently, they tell only what they want to tell. And we saw this happen even in business, where corporate PR learned how to spin.

As a result, we also saw the professionalization of PR. Journalism schools gave out degrees in PR (which I think is a mistake for both). PR became more powerful and lucrative. Spin became an art. Soon, everyone was no longer famous for 15 minutes; that’s so over. Instead, everyone got media training.

The problem with gatekeepers is that they try to control, to get in the way, to keep us from getting what we want.

And the problem with professionalism is that it’s all about separation from the public: a belief that you can manipulate them because they know less than you do.

That’s called spin.

And so, I hope that the movement of amatuerism may be an antidote to professional gatekeeping. No, we bloggers don’t have all the tools and access that the pros have. But we have the ability to ask questions and keep pressure on.

So when journalists of The New York Times criticized bloggers in the Walmart story, we bloggers came back and criticized the journalists, telling them: doctors, heal thyselves; reporters, reveal thyselves. We said that they are not transparent enough about their relationship with PR and spin. We put the pressure on. That’s what we do.

We can’t take over their role of acting as gatekeepers to audience or information because the age of scarcity of information and distribution are over; anybody can do this. We shouldn’t want to be gatekeepers. We shouldn’t want to get in the way of connecting people to what they want to know. We should do just the opposite and enable more people to find out more information. That’s what media and we can do now.

When there is a proper balance, then journalists can do what they should do: find out what other people don’t want us to know. And PR people can do what they should do: get official information to you. And we can do what we should do: judge for ourselves.

So learn the lesson of the gatekeepers: Their reign never lasts forever.

: LATER: : Steve Rubel, now of Edelman, argues that we’re all gatekeepers. I hope not. Gatekeeping is about keeping people from something. I think the ethic of this age is about sharing, which includes transparency.

: See Terry Heaton’s comment to this post:

Professional journalism and professional PR are two sides of the same coin, having been birthed in the Creel Committee days of Woodrow Wilson’s administration. As Walter Lippmann’s social engineering vision (the elite shall lead) birthed professional journalism, so did Edward Bernays social engineering vision (“it is now possible to control…the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”) birth professional PR.

The triumph of personal technology over mass technology is undercutting both of these visions. We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.

And as Chris Lasch used to remark about Lippmann, the rise in the professionalization of the news business produced a decline in the public’s involvement in the political process. This is why I think a rather remarkable political change is coming.

PR will likely become more and more essential for business and industry downstream, perhaps even supplanting advertising. Their problem, however, will be to find a way to participate in Media 2.0, and that won’t be easy.

: Umair Haque says that transparency is not a matter of ethics but of business strategy. He’s right. If your constituents don’t trust you and you don’t hold a monopoly, then you’ll be out of business.

: See Richard Edelman’s post about the Observer story — in which he argues that “traditional media matters now more than ever” and shares a lesson about giving interviews during cocktail hours. Perhaps he’s dreading the reporters who say, ‘hey, so I’m not God, huh?’ I think he was right the first time. See also his post about the Walmart story.

See Andy Plesser’s comment re my post on the Observer story, below.

In many areas, noteably government, celebrity and business PR, corporate communications professionals manage the flow of information and completely shape the news. And I believe a vast majority of news and feature coverage on television and in print is generated by public relations professionals. And, you’re right journalists are loath to acknowledge this. It’s kind of dark secret, I suppoe.

So maybe “gatekeeper” is a pejorative term and not altogether accurate, perhaps “agenda setter” is more accurate.

And, of course, there are many wonderful enterprising reporters and I didn’t mean to dimish their great work by my quote.

No, the public sets the agenda and if anyone — journalist, politician, marketer, manufacturer, academician, PR person — forgets that, they will fail. They are all trying to figure out what the agenda of the people is. And the smart ones are realizing they have a new way to discern that because we have a new way of communicating it. We’re speaking. Stop gatekeeping. Stop agenda-setting. Stop spinning. Listen.

Shhhh. Listen.

: LATER STILL: I have been quite properly taken to task in the comments for using the phrase “train bloggers” on the show. I’ll find an excuse for a slip of the tongue. What I meant was just this: The Times pulled a sucker punch, I believe, when it found one blogger who was clueless enough to quote the Edelman Walmart PR letter without attributionk, as if it was his own. I don’t know the blogger, but it was a clueless thing to day. But I suspect he had no ill intent. So I think somebody should clue him in about revealing such things. And while we’re at it, somebody should clue in big media journalists about being transparent about the stories and information that come from flacks, not to mention their favors and lunches when it’s relevant. I’d say that big-media journalists need more training in this than bloggers. Still, I apologize for using the phrase “train bloggers.” There, am I forgiven now?

: Glenn Reynolds quotes the CNN Reliable Sources transcript. I agree with him about the Times reporter.

: Oh, and this is a good time to reiterate my full disclosures: I consult for The Times Company at; as I said before, Edelman bought me a danish in December and his sister invited me to lunch awhile ago. But I still don’t shop at Walmart.

  • James

    I just came across the National Publicity Summit which seems like a prime example of stories starting from PR (albeit from actual people not flacks).

  • Take your thinking a little farther back, Jeff. Professional journalism and professional PR are two sides of the same coin, having been birthed in the Creel Committee days of Woodrow Wilson’s administration. As Walter Lippmann’s social engineering vision (the elite shall lead) birthed professional journalism, so did Edward Bernays social engineering vision (“it is now possible to control…the masses according to our will without their knowing it.”) birth professional PR.

    The triumph of personal technology over mass technology is undercutting both of these visions. We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.

    And as Chris Lasch used to remark about Lippmann, the rise in the professionalization of the news business produced a decline in the public’s involvement in the political process. This is why I think a rather remarkable political change is coming.

    PR will likely become more and more essential for business and industry downstream, perhaps even supplanting advertising. Their problem, however, will be to find a way to participate in Media 2.0, and that won’t be easy.

  • Karl

    The reference for this subject has been, and continues to be, Clay Shirky’s: “Power Laws, Weblogs, and Inequality”

    Steve Rubel, I feel, and I think Clay Shirky would feel, is right.

  • I think this is less about who controls information than the fact that no one does anymore.

    Back in the olden days, if something happened, I had to take someone elses word for it as to what the facts were. Various people (government officials, business leaders, PR people, etc.) had input into what I saw, but all I could know was what the media told me (unless I went through a long, laborious process to get at the original source material.)

    Well, we don’t have to do that anymore. If I want to know what the Abu Ghraib or Duelfer reports say, I can go read them for myself — I don’t have to rely on someone else to tell me what they say. it’s all just a few clicks away.

    While most people still won’t take the time, more people are than before. And when the media generalizes or misrepresents what the original sources say, they can’t get away with it anymore, because there are a thousand bloggers out there who will call them on it.

    That’s why the media hate blogging so much — they’re outraged that a bunch of “amateurs” have the ability to question what they write.

  • Scott Butki

    Do you have no problem with Bill Pickroll quoting directly from a press release from Wal-Mart without acknowledging that to his readers?

    You talk about the difference between old and new media – focusing on the quotebook – but leave out a much more important detail: A Similarity between old and new media – agenda-setting.

    Just as politicians on the right and Chomsky on the left used to complain that the newspapers and tv setting were setting the days agenda by choosing what stories to cover so do blogs set agendas by choosing what they write about.

    So is Wal-Mart attempting to set the agenda as far as bloggers are concerned? Sure sounds to me like the answer is yes whether it’s receiving emails or quoting press releases or quoting it in a text box.
    Is that bad? Well, it depends on how open they are about that with their readers.
    If I was reading a blogger who was paying more attention to pro-walmart statements than anti-wal mart stances and thus biased due to laziness or other reasons I’d like to know that.

    When I read a blogger I assume he or she has thought through an issue and is sharing a position, as opposed to just printing what they just got by email.

    Tell me where I’m wrong please and we can start from there.

  • JM Hanes

    Saw the appearance on Reliable Sources. I don’t ever want to hear you saying, “We have to train bloggers…” again.

  • It’s always fun to read a patented Jarvis “Do as I say, not as I do” sermon.

    All us little nobodies learned from the best in the business — the American media/PR machine (I’ve said this here before.) Expecting (almost demanding) better behaviour from the amateurs while the pros still do it, day in & day out, and get paid crazy-ass money for doing it, is either lightly insane or hog-selfish. I, ah, know which way I lean.

  • I just saw the piece on Reliable Sources as well and like commenter JM Hanes”, I too thought “What the heck!?” when I heard, “We have to train bloggers”. Did he really say that?

  • Interesting gauntlet you’ve thrown down here, Jeff. I’m gload you’ve gotten this discussion going.

    I’ve just mentioned this posting of yours over at Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits group weblog. See: “The Siren Song of Gatekeeping.” It’ll be interesting to see what journalists have to say about your perspective over there.


    – Amy Gahran
    Editor, E-Media Tidbits

  • afsvfan

    if people can’t trust the fun happy corporation of walmart than who can we trust .

    walmart needs to give employees all blogs on the walmart site ..

    forget the whole ecommerce thing . let million people blog. thats more fun.

    Howard is a boring host. replace him . you can take over with a bunch of bloggers.
    like a whole hour if you bashing big media.

  • OK, OK, I hereby abjectly apologize and throw myself on my sword for using the phrase “train bloggers.”
    What I was trying to say is that rather than acting in a game of gotcha, which is what the NY Times story was, it’s better to clue in folks about the best way to deal with flacks. As I did say on the show, the Times story was a sucker punch: They found one blogger who didin’t know better, who quoted a press release without attribution. Of course, I think that’s wrong. But I doubt this guy had bad intent. Somebody should clue him in. That’s what I meant when I said “train.”

  • Scott: Please click the links to my earlier posts and see that that is exactly what I have been saying: The pros are not transparent about how the suck up the spin from flacks and they have much farther to go to become transparent about that. That was the entire point of m y first post on the Times’ nonstory.

  • Scott: See the above comment. To answer your question directly: I don’t approve of that kind of lifting from press releases, whether done by a blogger or a pro.

  • There is an important difference between the way politicans use the press and the way public relations firms use it.

    The relationship between journalist and politician can be reciprocal and independent. In other words, politicians may exploit the news media to deliver talking points and spin policy positions — but they do not have to rely on journalists for that activity, which is the point of Jay Rosen’s excellent argument about Rollback over at PressThink. Therefore, there is no sense in which discredited news media are automatically a threat to any politician’s ability to communicate.

    Not so for public relations firms. If readers and viewers do not trust and believe the news media, the entire enterprise of placing stories, publicity and corporate spin with journalists becomes futile. Instead of reciprocal and independent, public relations firms are parasitic and dependent.

    Funnily enough, this means that it is against the interest of public relations firms to be too successful in message manipulation.

    Here’s why. If the totality of what we read and see in the news were PR spin, those firms would have killed the goose that lays the golden egg of free and credible publicity. PR content has to be surrounded by enough stuff that does not have a hidden agenda or an ax to grind or special pleading for its partial intervention on behalf of the client to get traction.

    Otherwise the client might just as well have paid for it and called it advertising.

  • Hope you have the same freedom you’ve enjoyed when you’re rugged up and nose-bagged in the Edelman stable. Make sure he gives you the good oats and doesn’t try to pawn off last year’s hay.

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  • Jeff: My bad on not connecting the dots all the way through. This conversation crap is hard.

    PS I’ll take all of last year’s hay anyone wants to throw at me.

  • We have to train bloggers?

    Well, if you’re going to run a PR campaign and enlist the support of bloggers and your’re going to give them information/talking points, then hell, yes, the bloggers should be ‘trained’ on who to blog.

    This doesn’t go against transparency. This should enhance it.

    The essence of any grassroots campaign is honest and personal contributions from individuals who feel passionate about an issue, cause, or candidate. When enlisting supporters to make some sort of testament, it’s necessary to “clue him in about revealing such things”.

    The use of bloggers in PR is becoming a ‘practice’ with right ways and wrong ways. If a firm is looking to enlist bloggers, it must ‘train’ them on those rights and wrongs.

  • Dan

    This would be a cool “Modern Musical” to write about and add stuff about the war in Iraq and the ERON / Walmart money suckers.
    The plot will be how bloggers took over the US Government, Corporate America and the World.
    Then bloggers created piece on Earth…


  • Jeff,

    Your use of the words “spin” and “flack” are pejoratives in the public relations business. Perhaps your long tenure working the mainstream media’s “back of the book” left a bad taste in your mouth from that side of the PR profession. It should be noted that Richard Edelman, Harold Burson, and so many other industry statesmen have long advocated for an honest and transparent exchange between the media (the true public gatekeepers) and the clients they represent. Your generalization of the profession as flacks who spin is not only disrespectful (and condascending), but it no longer applies to the more forward-thinking of those who practice PR today.


  • Scott Butki

    Ok, Jeff, thanks for the clarification.

  • Jeff’s hungry for Edelman’s oats. Scott C is chomping at the bit for last year’s hay, Jonathan wants bloggers properly ‘trained’ while Peter prefers we call flacks and spinners “forward-thinking industry statesmen.”

    That stable aroma is pretty strong in this thread and I for one am not expecting Edelman to don his green wellies and muck it out.

  • No, Noel. I’ll have lunch with them… and disclose it. But I’m not going into PR. No thanks. I would hate it. It’s not what I do for a living. And I would be very bad at it; I’m no salesman.

  • Aha! So if, as you allege, nothing is happening, or about to happen at these feeding grounds, why bother disclosing a lunch? Surely you are a free burgher allowed to eat with whom you choose without having to broadcast it all over the Internet. ;)

    Also, you have failed to disclose what is on the menu at these allegedly innocent meal venues: oats, hay or a little Guinness to ensure that when you’re at the starting line, you’re in the mood to win that Edelman Cup … even if you’re allegedly racing under your own colors.

  • great appearance on CNN “Reliable Sources, ” Jeff. They could have given you more airtime, but it was well worth it. I loved how you explained the “gatekeeper” concept.

    I came here because of your mention on the show. It’s a great blog….

  • dennis lee’s link is http://none.

    Another botched Edelman cut and paste?

  • Jeff, fragmentation won’t get rid of gatekeepers, because not everyone has equal access to top execs or stars. The PR people have to cherry pick just because there are so many media/blog outlets–they can’t meet with them all.

    The way to avoid such manipulation is by building a large enough brand that they will seek you out–and cannot play one publication against another.

    Also, control has got to go. We have no control over how others might Tag us, and we should instead focus on representing our best sides, as people and as companies, at all times.

  • Instead of putting up a front, Tom, shouldn’t we just be ourselves? Wouldn’t that be more honest or isn’t that important anymore?

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  • […] I think the role of public relations as a facilitator, making sure that access is granted to those that need it, which is much different that a gatekeeper role, “I decide what you will know.” We must be experts in knowing what the stakeholders of the companies we work for need and we must also be very close to the leadership and the employees of those companies to act as the stakeholders advocate at the decision-making table.

    I once wrote that PR can be like the ombudsman for the stakeholders (customers, shareholders, etc.), connecting the concerns of the grassroots with the management.

    Maybe a better term would be Relational Manger. […]

  • Noel Guinane Says:

    dennis lee’s link is http://none.

    Another botched Edelman cut and paste?

    Perhaps not unlike your botched cut-and-paste email to me (Disclosure: an Edelman employee) inviting me to comment on your blog?

    From: Noel Guinane
    Sent: Wednesday, March 15, 2006 11:18 AM
    To: Phil Gomes
    Subject: Blog Post on Edelman PR

    I checked into the Successful Blog and read your post on the recent flak with Edelman PR and Walmart. We have put up a post on the same subject and would like to invite you to tell us what you think. The view on this blog reflects my opinion, but it may not be your opinion. Please feel free to comment.

    For the record, Noel, my blog is Phil’s Blogservations, not the Successful Blog.

  • Sorry, Phil, my mistake. Thanks for your comment on our blog which I am reprinting here:

    I, too, received your solicitation via email, Noel.

    It’s unclear how Jeff et al were enlisted. Jeff, for example, freely discloses the apparently innocent purchase of danish pastries by Edelman’s sister, but fails to disclose the content of the conversation that went along with these allegedly innocent breakfast treat(s) (bribe(s)?). What are we to make of it? Damning isn’t the word I’d use for this highly suspicious restaurant rendezvous(s).

    Oh, man… Welcome to the Tinfoil Hat Crowd.

    Do you REALLY think that Jeff Jarvis can be bought off WITH A DANISH?

    Dan Gillmor is probably one of the most resolutely ethical people I’ve ever met. If you knew anything about the man, you would not make such a charge.


    philgomes | Thursday, March 16th, 2006 @ 01:42 AM

    And my response:

    Frankly, Phil, there is nothing lower than accepting a danish bribe. Crooked cops may take pay-offs from the mob, but NEVER do they accept a danish. The occasional cannoli maybe, but a danish? Please!

    As for Dan Gillmor, what does ‘resolutely ethical’ mean?

    Noel Guinane | Thursday, March 16th, 2006 @ 08:03 AM

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