Should the media give coverage to a PR stunt?
News is news. That's what readers, viewers and listeners worry about.
The quality press - more prone to navel-gazing - and the media's own trade press are also interested in how news is made? Is it real news? Or manufactured news? And does it matter?
There has been a lot of discussion in the trade press recently - as well as in the blogs of our locally-based CIPR President Lis Lewis-Jones - about what's been dubbed 'churnalism'. This is the notion that journalists working in the media are now so lazy, under-resourced, over-stretched or just plain untalented that they spend most of their time churning second-hand news delivered by agencies and press releases.
So it does seem ironic that some of the biggest names in the national media have been complicit in what commentators are now calling the biggest PR stunt of the year: the re-branding from Hooray Harry to Harry the Secret Hero.
BBC world news editor Jon Williams in his editor's blog says how he agonised over whether or not to keep Prince Harry's tour of duty in Afghanistan a secret - but then went along with it at least partly to protect the Royal's fellow troops.
I have a lot of respect for the BBC blog - especially the Newsround contributions - which do a good job of discussing the great deal of thought behind some editorial decision-making.
I'm less sure about some of the red tops - who were probably more swayed by the offer of otherwise unobtainable juicy coverage of "When Harry met Tali" (The Star) and "Extraordinary candid pictures and interviews revealing the life of a prince on the front line" (Daily Mail) than any real security issues.
What would have happened if Prince Harry had been killed in action? Would Britain have been any more likely to pull out its troops?
To show how both sides can play the PR game, in a 'web exclusive' Newsweek magazine is now quoting a Taliban commander: "He may be a prince, but he didn't have a prince's heart," says Karim. "He proved as cruel and brutal as other British soldiers, bombing and shelling innocent Afghans and Taliban."
Since the USA-based web rebel Matt Drudge broke the media silence UK national editors have faced a backlash from at least some of their readers for keeping them in the dark. One on the Guardian.co.uk had this to say: "I am shocked, and saddened too, that a paper I trusted for years to always seek out the truth has been complicit in the cover up." And the paper's own columnist Marina Hyde calling the whole affair a "cringe-making stunt".
So, after the national press (and indeed a good many of the regionals) have by now dedicated probably hundreds of pages lapping up the Royal PR output - back to our discussion of churnalism...
Should the media make such widespread use of information provided by a PR source?
The answer is that the true test of whether something deserves to be reported or not has little to do with where the information came from. PRs are generally putting out positive stuff and good news can still be news.
Consumers of the media are less concerned about whether the original source of a story is a news release, annual report, politician's speech, tip-off, police or ambulance news log or old-fashioned investigative research. We are all in the business of communications; of telling a story and getting people to listen.
I am a member of both the National Union of Journalists and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. As far as I am concerned I have never stopped being a journalist.
My NUJ membership (which came first) was an officially acknowledged part of my route to CIPR membership. And the NUJ has a section specifically for members working in PR and media relations. So both organisations accept that there is a significant overlap between the two disciplines - if they are indeed different disciplines at all. Yet we still see the trade press commenting on so-and-so 'quitting journalism for a life in PR' almost as if they are joining the enemy.
Churnalism may be the topic of the moment, but the suggestion that by reporters using PR sources they are somehow devaluing news has been around for decades. As Lis Lewis-Jones says "PRs can provide newsworthy, well researched copy". Of course they can, if they have the same journalistic skills. And editors know the ones they can trust to provide quality copy, the ones who won't lie and the ones who won't unfairly criticise the media for carrying out their role of fair reporting of the facts.
If an organisation is doing good work, then negative media coverage is more likely to have happened because of misunderstanding than because the organisation was caught out doing something it shouldn't. So the answer lies in removing the misunderstanding, not running away.
Ab Fab was great fun to watch, but it's a million miles away from the sort of media relations provided by Actuality Media, Liquid PR and all the others I could mention working hard in the West Midlands.