Pete Sigrist
Jan 6, 2022

Elizabeth Holmes scandal: a reminder that PR must protect journalistic independence

The relationship between PR and the press is a vital one. We on this side of the fence need to do everything we can to preserve it.

Elizabeth Holmes (centre) leaves the courthouse in San Jose, California, on 3 January 2022 (NICK OTTO/AFP via Getty Images)
Elizabeth Holmes (centre) leaves the courthouse in San Jose, California, on 3 January 2022 (NICK OTTO/AFP via Getty Images)

Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes is all over the news, convicted of fraud. Some of the trial coverage recounts the experience of journalists covering Holmes in 2013 when she broke into the mainstream. The Wall Street Journal got the first interview. Holmes reportedly reviewed the article before publication. Roger Parloff, who wrote a cover story for Fortune, said during the trial he was “not permitted” to include certain facts of the Theranos story.

These titbits should trouble anyone working in public relations. It calls into question the role of the press when covering companies. It also calls into doubt the value we offer our clients as professional advisers.

We’ve all been there. Negotiating with journalists for control of the story. Arguing for the inclusion – or more commonly the exclusion – of a message or a fact. But there are and must be lines that are not crossed. If the press fails to act independently, it risks losing the very trust and authority that makes it so valuable.

The value of a free press is not enshrined in some law. Throughout the 20th century the press played an outsized role in shaping the conduct of public life. The size of a national news organisation offered public relations professionals an abundance of journalistic relationships to nurture.

The advent of the 21st century was less kind. A succession of advertising market crashes saw newspapers and magazines shed staff. The 24-hour news cycle stole that most valuable journalistic commodity, time. Copy had to be filed, often multiple times a day.

And to cap it all, social media rose and threatened the central role of the press as the primary source of news. In the era of fake news, why pay attention to a boring fact when an exciting revelation is just a thumb-scroll away?

The public is growing tired of false promises, lazily narrowcast via Facebook Live. It has created space for the press to reinvent itself for the 21st century as the unimpeachable documenter of lives and teller of stories, guided by objectivity and founded in fact, not supposition. This fight is only beginning, but the press has the chance to earn back its mantle as a trusted authority.

We in the PR industry need an independent press. We benefit from its reputation as a trustworthy source of public information. The scrutiny of corporate standards has the effect of adding value to the advice we offer.

It is in our own interests that we recognise the symbiotic nature of our relationship. We must be on the side of editorial independence, reject demands for copy review and make sure we never treat journalists as only a means to an end. We must encourage open access between journalists and the organisations we represent, recognising media criticism is a force for good, even for the brands and companies being criticised.

For every Theranos, there are dozens of start-ups that deserve a positive press. But that will only happen if we value long-term balance over the short-term rush of good coverage.

Pete Sigrist is the principal of specialist communications consultancy Chapel End.


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