Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Of public interest, or just plain interesting?

Our society’s fascination with other people’s lives is engrained within us from a very young age and is reflected in the high number of gossip magazines that we purchase as a nation. We have always liked to keep up with the Jones’s but the first stage of keeping up is knowing what they have in the first place. Like it or not, we are a nation of nosey parkers...

According to Peter and Olson (2006:69) UK regulations have been based on the distinction between public and private interests. However, it raises the question as to whether the general population know their real interest or whether these interests have been shaped by people such as ourselves, PR professionals. The textbooks call it paternalism, some may call it propaganda.

As PR practitioners we are paid to shape opinions and persuade people to our way of thinking, are we not?

So what’s the difference, do the public need to know everything just because they find it interesting? And do we have a duty to tell them details when they need only know facts and figures?

Before we decide what is ‘of public interest’ we have to define it. There are two main ways in which it is viewed, emergent and aggregate. Emergent concepts decide on areas of public interest by encouraging interactions between people in the form of discussions and debates (Peter and Olson:2006:70). The aggregate concept adds together desires and wishes of individuals. For example, according to the aggregate concept it could be argued that Emmerdale is of public interest because a lot of people watch it.

To fully get to grips with this I shall apply a case study: Michael Jacksons Death

Type in Michael Jacksons Death into Google and over 15 million results will come up.

What information was of public interest?

He died, his greatest hits album would be released soon and his tour was cancelled.

What information was interesting to the public?

Everything else. Did his Dr overdose him on drugs, the rumour that one of his children wasn’t his, what his mum and dad thought, how much money he had earned since he died, where his money has gone, who gets his estate.

Did the public REALLY need to know all that? If we decided that the aggregate concept is correct then yes they did, due to the fact a lot of people were interested. An emergent view would also support it, people were talking about it meaning that it was of public interest. But in my opinion people just wanted to know because they were nosey, did it affect their lives directly? No.

A study claims that 64% of people polled believed the coverage for Jackson’s death was too much. So it seems that some people agree, bet they still bought the papers though.

In this case I believe it was the fact that the papers knew that the public were interested in the story so it was a guaranteed way to sell papers. However it could be argued that it was an example of paternalism, in the sense that the papers (‘an elite few’) decided that the public would be interested in Jackson’s death to such an extent and fed the public a certain view on the situation, filled with controversy, dramatisation and ‘exclusives’.

The rise of individuals personalising their media choices and being able to choose the news that they receive could be seen as a solution to this apparent paternalism, however in my opinion it will always exist. Parents do it to their children, wives do it to their husbands and husbands do it their wives. It is a form of protection, putting their interests first.

Often the public’s interests are catered to with kiss and tell stories and countless articles on the adventures of their favourite celebrities but what happens when there are rules and regulations to prevent things from being printed? What about confidentiality? To a certain extent this could further fuel interest as it is not meant to be known, so when it is found out the media run with it and the public lap it up.

Does it make a difference however when you are talking about companies rather than celebrities? Do people still have that yearning for information and scandal? Indeed they do, ranging from directors of companies putting their foot in it like Gerald Ratner or grand openings gone wrong in the case of Terminal 5 at Heathrow. People are always interested in knowing what goes on behind closed doors.

As a PR professional we have to make this distinction: what do people need to know to ensure they make a rational decision? What isn’t essential knowledge and often more importantly, what do we need to keep quiet? Often we hold information that could make or break an organisation or that could cause major unrest society and it is up to us how to use it…

Scary thought hey?!


  1. Too much information is always better than too little. If we were only told what we needed to know we'd be living in Maoist China. The downside of course is that this principle has given us Heat, Closer and Peter Andre: The Next Chapter

  2. And of course there is a nice distinction between 'in the public interest' and 'of public interest'...!

  3. Thank you for your comment Jez.

    I suppose we do take for granted the fact that we have access to the vast amount of information as we do. I think that the important distinction to be made, like you say is that somethings are just interesting to the public even though they don't have 'the right' to know. Hopefully this blog post explored these differencs.

    There will be 2 more posts in this series which will be discussing the role of truth in PR and whether an honest and responsible regard for public interest is the same as telling the truth. I thought it apt however for me firstly to distinguish just what public interest was.

  4. I think the individuals interpretation is key to the level of importance of the subject matter, to some information is a priority that must be acted upon, to others it has no effect and they therefore don't react to it. I am not particularly interested who is going to make the next royal wedding dress ... but I do care if MY clothing is manufactured in a sweat factory and this would definately influence my choice.

  5. Great point Julie. It is indeed subjective, as some people find certain information interesting and others not. This could venture onto the debate of SPAM. I believe however that the personalisation of media and the choice that individuals now have means that they are able to filter certain information out - to choose what is interesting to them.

  6. Michael Jackson's death was so interesting because his entire life was a mystery to us all, despite the huge amounts of coverage about him. The public love mystery.. Just look at how much hype Apple generated today from leaving an cryptic message on their homepage. It turns out the announcement was that The Beatles are now on iTunes - pointless to any fan who is very likely to own the music already.

    However, this is a great case study of how PRs can exploit the system in which the public love rumour and mystery. It is not really valuable to the public, but it entertains.

    Of course there are times information is of interest to the public, but also their right - think torture techniques released by wikileaks. Yet there is always a need for balance; Apple exploited the hype which has disappointed the public, and wikileaks may have endangered the public. My example uses one far more extreme than the other.. but you get the gist :)

  7. Good blog post. My answer? It depends.

    It depends on a number of factors which determine what you do or do not disclose to external audiences. A few scenarios:

    1. Is it law that I should disclose this information? (Share it)

    2. Will it benefit external audiences (including the public) if I disclose this information? (If yes, share it)

    3. Will it benefit my client to disclose this information? (If yes, share it)

    4. Will it benefit external audiences but be detriment to my client if I disclose this information? (Question of personal ethics)

    5. Will it benefit my client but be detriment to external audiences if I share it? (Question of personal ethics)

    Agree with Jez above too. Too much information is better than too little and I would prefer the information there if I ever needed it - which fits in nicely with Julie’s comment about information being relevant to different parties. And if we are, as you say, increasingly filtering news and information to our own wants and needs then having an abundance of (mostly unwanted) information doesn’t matter because we will only see the stuff we choose to.

  8. An interesting post; one that certainly raises questions about what is of public interest vs. what interests the public. There is such a big difference between the news and reporting credible and transparent information vs. the dramatization and hype that you often see with stars and publicity. In the the case of publicity...consumers make choices and if they want to know or feel they need to know then, it gives an outlet, a journalist and a publicist an an attentive audience. However, not everyone has the same interest and will filter out the hype and spin opting for credible news sources and information that they find valuable. I think that consumers dictate and make the choices (usually opting for more rather than less information). They want to drive and control their media. Consumers decide which sources they can rely on, for what they consider the "news" (which is subjective). As long as there is a desire, a need and people who have the interest, then there will be the sources there to report and feed the interest. Thanks for sharing a very thoughtful post.

  9. Hi David,

    Thank you for your comment. I agree, there are times when people are drawn in by mystery and rumour - hence why so many gossip magazines are bought. I will be exploring in my next 2 posts how this fits in within the area of public relations and whether an honest and responsible regard for the public interest is the same as telling the truth. These posts will tie in with the second part of your comment and explore the situations in which it is not possible for the whole truth to be told. I shall look forward to hearing your thoughts on my later blog posts :-)

  10. Hi Stephen,

    Your comment offers an extremely good checklist to apply to any piece of information before you send it out - I shall definitely be using this in my work! I will be covering personal ethics in my later blog posts and discussing situations when personal ethics may well differ from your organisations.

    Am glad you agree with my point about personalising information, I think this is an important point. However I don't know if I would like to choose my interests as I would miss out on a wealth of information that may well affect my life.

    Thanks for your comment. Its great to get other points of view and I shall look forward to hearing what you have to say on the topic of personal ethics and the definition of the truth...


  11. Hi Deidre,

    Brilliant to have someone from America commenting!

    Indeed yes, I think that it is important to note that there is a need there and these magazines are simply fulfilling this. I think your point about consumers increasing level of power is extremely relevant and definitely a factor that has changed the way in which the media acts. They could be tempted to elaborate on stories knowing that it will sell more papers and to cater to this 'consumer need'.

    Thank you for your comment and also your RT on Twitter. Looking forward to reading your books when I receive them :-)


  12. Nice blog post Carly.

    I think the ever growing world of Facebook, Twitter and Social Media in general sums it up nicely. We're all fascinated in what other people do - not just celebrities, but our friends, old schoolmates, colleagues etc etc and so there will always be a public interest when that mentality is ingrained into us all.

  13. Really enjoyed your post.

    Jez makes a very good point with his comment - if the public were only fed (right choice of word?!) what they really needed to know, our society would be a very scary place. Information which is only 'interesting but not needed' can often determine how attractive a story appears, and ultimately how much revenue a story can generate. There will always be responsibility placed on those who provide the news to do so in a professional and fair way – there is the argument that this will always be weighed up against the need to generate interest. Whether or not attitudes, or understanding of this responsibility, changes over time, I’m really not sure.

    A couple of questions that popped into my head were: Does different interesting information help provide balance, depth or credibility to a story? What might be considered interesting to the public by some journalists might be considered information of public interest to others – it might not always be clear cut.

    I hope I am making sense!



  14. Hi Peter,

    Extremely relevant point you made about our growing fascination with other peoples lives - I do agree that Facebook and Twitter further emphasise this trend - the importance of privacy settings hey?! :-)

    Thank you for your comment.

  15. Rob, you are indeed making sense! I am on your wavelength. I hope I got across in the post that it is subjective as to what is of public interest and what is just interesting. Either could be argued in many cases. I will be going on to explore situations in which PR practitioners are party to information which is both interesting and of interest to the public but they are told not to pass this information on. I shall make sure I tweet you a link so you can give me thoughts on those when they are out :-)

    Thanks for your comment.

  16. “... the papers (‘an elite few’) decided that the public would be interested in Jackson’s death to such an extent and fed the public a certain view on the situation”

    I think this sentence says it all.

    The most recent example is the Royal wedding. In the middle of being told that the British public are ‘rejoicing’ and ‘smiling’ about the news, nobody’s stopped to ask if the British public still supports a monarchy, let alone a taxpayer-funded wedding. But, of course, the press would never hear of it; they need to shift papers, and shift papers they will do.

    This ‘paternalism’ is common for all media resources, whether they’re specialist or generic; something has to be the top story, something has to be the front page, something has to grab the reader by the balls. And this leads to the key point – all information is relative.

    By nature, we’re all curious and inquisitive animals; it’s what got us to the top of the food chain. Gossip, scandal and salacious affairs will always get us salivating. But someone – the editor – has to judge what information will be of interest to their ‘customer’ and what won’t. PR aims to influence this judgement.

    I think the difference now is that online and social media has allowed us to share and take apart information, and question its validity, relevance and objectivity with similar interested groups. The successful blogs and online publications are superb at keeping tabs on what their customers want.

    Most of the traditional media, however, has never been good with this, and is still struggling. If the editors of the nationals are listening, they might discover that the vast majority of the public is bored to tears with the Royal wedding already. But it doesn’t matter, we can brace ourselves for another six months of coverage, whether we’re interested or not.

  17. Hi Adam,

    I love your point about the royal wedding. Indeed we will look forward to months of newspapers telling us how excited we are, as well special anniversary editions and special editions on the day of the wedding. Exciting times! :-) I know you will be first in the queue!

    I think social media/online media is a driving force for customes to broadcast what they want -a shift of power perhaps...

    Thanks for your comment.