Fiction and non-fiction of Public Relations

Samuel Johnson prize 2014

In June I wrote a snarky blog post on PR Conversations – Should sisters PR it for themselves? My argument was around awards that focused specifically on women which I don’t believe deliver a PR benefit beyond promoting the individual winners.

The prompt for that post was the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction . Today my eye was caught by the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. This is a non-gendered award and four out of the six shortlisted authors are women.

This fact alone should not be notable, and the Guardian highlights the inclusion of memoirs in the title of its report. However, its subhead mentions only the two books by male authors; whilst the Telegraph’s headline focuses on John Campbell’s biography of Roy Jenkins, which “leads a strong field“. To be fair, the piece records that last year’s winner was female, and the chair of the panel is Claire Tomalin, with Alan Johnson MP and Ruth Scurr as judges. Overall, none of this seems to put the focus on gender which is what happened naturally with reporting of the Baileys Women’s Prize.

The six shortlisted books are (in alphabetical order of author):

John Campbell: Roy Jenkins
Marion Coutts: The Iceberg: A Memoir
Greg Grandin: The Empire of Necessity
Alison Light: Common People
Helen Macdonald: H is for Hawk
Caroline Moorehead: Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France

I like the fact that this prize celebrates non-fiction (e.g. biography, memoir and history) as this form of literature tells a story drawing on real life facts and information. Whist this still involves a process of interpretation and representation, normally in a form of narrative structure, its heart is research and legitimate evidence, even if that is opinion derived from interviews or other people-based sources (presented as evidence, but not necessarily as fact).

As such, it relates to the type of writing we encourage in students when undertaking academic-based assessments. It also should be relevant in Public Relations when producing materials that are intended to inform rather than solely to entertain. Our work should not rely on “unverified supposition, deduction, or imagination for the purposes of smoothing out a narrative“, although Wikipedia asserts this is the case with some non-fiction. It clearly states that if it includes ‘open falsehoods’ it would be discredited as a work of non-fiction.

As an educator, I often struggle when students produce work that makes assertions, claims and arguments that are totally unsupported by any evidence or reference to sources to justify, verify or qualify their work. This suggests a tendency towards not checking sources outside of their academic work. Indeed, I am interested to see a rise of ‘fact-checking’ often crowd-sourced to “sort truth from fiction“. As PR practitioners, we need to ensure that there is robustness and reliability in our work, particularly when it comes to presenting information on which others will be making decisions. We have to be organisational fact-checkers – and I believe should be open about our sources (e.g. including endnotes in media releases and other documents).

This is not to say that I don’t value creativity and self-expression, I do. But that falls more under the remit of fiction which is fine for some communications, but can be problematic when viewing PR as more than simply the production of stuff – content if you like – to get attention. Okay if adopting the classic Grunig & Hunt (1984) PR model of press agentry when truth is not essential, but an issue if you are building a reputation as a credible and reliable source.

Elsewhere, the Telegraph reminds us of this publicity-based approach to PR, as today is Super Thursday (when 315 hard-back books are released). This is a creative device involving promotional activity to generate as much interest as possible ahead of the Christmas book market.

The Bookseller reports this is the first year where there has been a “trade-wide acknowledgement of Super Thursday as a national book event“, culminating in Big Bookshop Parties on Saturday. I find it interesting in this article that there is acknowledgement of the media interest in the concept since it was first identified apparently in 2008. However, it is claimed it did not benefit bookshops. This suggests that PR activity was acting in isolation by simply generating coverage and interest, but not being co-ordinated with sales, marketing and distribution. However, it is also puzzling that the piece includes complaints that the focus on this short period causes issues for bookstores who are unable to cope with the demand that is generated. When connected to the sales boost noted for Super Thursday periods over the last six years, clearly the PR activity is stimulating a behaviour i.e. purchase of books. This must mean the winners are the online book retailers, perhaps not surprisingly given the ease of finding and buying through the internet, and mobile devices.

If the PR practitioners behind the Super Thursday concept are working for publishers, they are achieving an outcome if sales of their books are increasing. But if they have an objective of supporting physical retailers, perhaps they need to work more closely with other colleagues to ensure this strategic outcome is met.

In PR we not only need to distinguish between fiction and non-fiction in our own work, but ensure that the end result of our work can be clearly assessed in the achievement of verifiable measures not perpetuate a fiction that media coverage alone is evidence of success.