Tag Archives: journalistic integrity

4 Media Relations Lessons…Learned the Hard Way

Tripped up again…by the “When did you stop beating your wife?”​ question.

Media relations (or press relations) involves risks and consequences that can quickly derail any career, either as a corporate executive or PR agency rep. A misquote can sink a company’s stock price. An innocent “puff piece” can turn out to be an exposé that embarrasses your CEO. An insensitive comment on camera can spark a customer boycott.

Over the course of my career – as an in-house staff member, and as a PR flack for hire – I’ve received several permanent scars, while attempting to generate positive coverage, and while defending against negative reporting. Some of those media scars have been self-inflicted; others were caused by journalists who often play by their own set of rules.

Here are four lessons I’ve learned from working with the press:

1. A Reporter Can Never Be a Trusted Friend.

As spokesperson for the Options Division of the American Stock Exchange, I frequently spoke with a Chicago Sun-Times reporter who covered news related to the Chicago Board Options Exchange. At that time, the CBOE had a significantly greater number of options listings compared with the Amex, but a small number of listings were traded on both exchanges. He considered the competition for market share involving those few listings to be newsworthy.

Our weekly conversations were always friendly. Discussion topics ranged from baseball to poetry, and always ended with him asking me for a comment about market share, with me declining. After several months of weekly conversations, and having exchanged college exploits and family details, I considered this reporter a friend. Tired of declining to comment on his market share issue so many times, I finally said to him one day, “Why do you keep asking me that same dumb question? The CBOE is so much larger than the Amex, and the CBOE only trades options, so why is that a story?” He laughed and we hung up.

The next day, I was summoned to the Amex President’s office. He threw a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times in my lap. The headline of the business section read: AMEX OFFICIAL ADMITS CBOE SUPERIORITY. I expected to be fired on the spot, but instead (and to my great relief) he told me, “Don’t ever let that happen again.” I’ve never forgotten the lesson to always expect to see whatever you say (and sometimes things you didn’t say) in print. Nor have I forgotten my boss’s benevolence.

2. Some Reporters Have Personal Agendas

While representing a major chain of food stores as outside PR counsel, I brought in a Forbes reporter in hopes of having her write a company profile. The food chain had been doing very well, had an interesting story, and there was no negative news associated with the company. The reporter’s 2-hour interview with the CEO went very well. He answered all of her questions in a direct manner, and she did not present any questions that suggested an intention to write anything other than a positive story. The CEO winked at me on the way out the door, as if to say, “Nice job.”

Two weeks later, I picked up the phone, and the CEO screamed, “Have you seen the article in Forbes?” I said no, and he yelled, “When you read it, you’ll know why you’re fired!” He slammed down the phone.

I scrambled to get a copy of Forbes, and read what was a total hatchet job. The reporter had nothing positive to say about my client’s company. My fingers trembled with anger as I dialed the reporter. She picked up, and I asked her, “How could you possible write that story?” There was a long pause, then she said, “I didn’t like the way your client treated his secretary.” Then she hung up. That experience taught me that you can never count on positive coverage. Press relations is always a crap shoot.

3. Admit When You Don’t Know the Answer

As head of public relations at a very large financial services company, I spoke on a regular basis with seasoned journalists who always knew far more than I did about complex, arcane topics. I received a call one day from a Wall Street Journal reporter regarding a press release we had just issued involving a stock split. He asked me a question that I didn’t really understand, but my ego did not allow me to admit to him that I didn’t know the correct answer. His question was simple, requiring me to select one of two possible responses. Playing the odds, I picked one, hoping it was correct.

The next morning, in a flashback from my Amex days, the firm’s CEO walked into my office with a copy of the Wall Street Journal, asking who had spoken with the reporter who covered the stock split. I had picked the wrong response to the reporter’s question, and the error had been published. For a second time, I was lucky to keep my job, but groveled in the follow-up call to the reporter, asking for a clarification in the next issue. I’ve never made that same mistake, and now consider admission of ignorance a badge of courage.

4. A Reporter’s Ego Can Derail Fair Coverage

While representing a new advertising agency, I arranged an interview for the agency co-founders with a well-known New York Times columnist who covered their industry. My clients were elated at the prospect of being featured in such a respected, widely read column. But when the story appeared, some of the key facts regarding the agency were reported incorrectly.

I assured my clients that the columnist would print a clarification in his next column. I called him, and introduced myself, to which he responded, “I know why you’re calling me. And if you push for a clarification, I will never cover your client in my column again.” Offsetting this unpleasant incident, I’ve also had experiences with well-known journalists, including Dan Rather, who’ve kept their positions and egos from affecting their professionalism. 

In media relations you learn to expect surprises, and to roll with the punches. Career risk notwithstanding, you have the potential to educate target audiences, to shape opinion, and to create positive outcomes for your company or client. When those good things happen, the hard lessons you’ve learned and the scars you accumulated all seem worthwhile. 

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How PR Firms Promote False Credibility

travelling_snake_oil_salesman

Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Zweig recently called out “marketing services specialist” Clint Arthur for selling speaking opportunities at the Harvard Faculty Club and the West Point Club, as a means for his paying clients to leverage the credibility associated with those two respected institutions.

As Zweig’s article points out, however, the schools neither sponsored those events, nor endorsed the program in any way. Apparently, Zweig’s article hasn’t deterred Mr. Arthur from hijacking brand endorsements, as he continues to promote this service (and many others) on his LinkedIn profile and his websites, including the “Status Factory.”

Clint Arthur may represent the extreme end of PR hucksterism, but for decades many well-known public relations firms have sold other types of false or inflated credibility that relies on the implied third-party endorsement of respected media sources and organizations. (In some cases, those respected brands are complicit in selling their brand stature.)

Here’s one example of how the credibility game is played:

At considerable expense, a PR firm will earn their client a spot as a Subject Matter Expert (SME) on a respected journalist’s list of sources, which may eventually yield a relevant quote in a published story. Although that story will often contain quotes from other SMEs, including the client’s competitors – making the coverage useless from a sales and marketing perspective – the PR firm will hype this “earned media placement” in several ways, including:

  • A press release announcing that the client has been FEATURED in ForbesFortuneCNBC, the Wall Street Journal, etc.;
  • Social media postings on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook referencing the publicity;
  • A permanent “As seen in (name of media source)” banner on the home page of the client’s website;
  • Surgical removal of the client’s quote from the story, coupled with the publication’s logo, hung like a hunting trophy in the client website’s News section.

All of these tactics are intended to suggest that the client is a safe choice, simply because they’ve been mentioned in a respected media source. And all of these tactics overplay their hand, with respect to the public’s trust in legitimate media.

There are certainly many PR firms that help clients to generate earned media coverage based on bona fide thought leadership and subject matter expertise. High quality content is entitled to the full measure of direct and indirect promotion, to ensure that a client’s intellectual capital (as well as its media “endorsements”) are known to target audiences.

Where the PR industry has fallen short, however, and where the offending “media shops” continue to damage the reputation of the profession (with clients and journalists), is the attempt to claim credibility when it has not really been earned. In that regard, they deserve no more respect than that given to Clint Arthur.

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The Real Price We All Pay for “Brand Journalism”

propaganda babyThe historical roots of journalism, now encompassing all mass media, were nurtured by its role as The Fourth Estate; the independent public watchdog that keeps in check the three major democratic “estates” of power (in Britain the houses of Parliament, in America the three branches of government). So in spite of the great amount of attention it pays to murder trials, royal weddings and the lives of celebrities, the media plays a critical role in a democratic society; and to function properly it must be objective, unbiased, transparent and independent.

One current challenge to journalism’s mandate is that the line between news and entertainment continues to erode. All media sources compete for the same eyeballs, so speed has become more important than accuracy in reporting, and there are no rules regarding how the news is gathered. The journalist’s role has shifted from fact-based reporting to opinion-based commentary. Journalism has morphed into “communitainment.” And Edward R. Murrow is not pleased.

Erosion of journalism’s mandate has accelerated with the growth of “brand journalism,” which is content specifically created to promote commercial interests, very often in a non-transparent manner. Promotional messaging that for decades had been identified and quarantined by the media as ADVERTORIAL content – now safely re-branded as “sponsored” or “native” content – has gained legitimacy as bona fide editorial information worthy of placement in the New York Times or the CBS Evening News.

We live in a world where our knowledge, perceptions and culture are shaped by Google searches, Facebook posts and YouTube videos, and where technology and economic forces have created the perfect Petri dish for commercial agendas to overwhelm the volume and attention given to objective editorial interests. So is there a price to be paid for the loss of a free and independent press?

A few years ago, veteran journalist Bill Moyers explained what’s happened to journalism this way: “Our dominant media are ultimately accountable only to corporate boards whose mission is not life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for the whole body of our republic, but the aggrandizement of corporate executives and shareholders…These organizations’ self-styled mandate is not to hold public and private power accountable, but to aggregate their interlocking interests. Their reward is not to help fulfill the social compact embodied in the notion of “We, the people,” but to manufacture news and information as profitable consumer commodities.” [Read Bill Moyers “Is the Fourth Estate a Fifth Column?: Corporate media colludes with democracy’s demise” in its entirety.]

As we continue to feast on mind-numbing, easily digested communitainment, and as we readily accept well-disguised commercialized propaganda as objective news and information…let’s keep in mind what we’re really giving up.

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Did Reader’s Digest Flunk Its Own Trust Test?

It Pays to Get a Second Opinion

…and I have a highly rated TV show.

In an effort to goose newsstand sales, the June issue of Reader’s Digest features a cover story entitled, “The 100 Most Trusted People in America Today.” Although the article’s “most trusted” claim is far from trustworthy (in fact, 1,000 people voted on 200 American “opinion shapers and headline makers” that Reader’s Digest had pre-selected), there are some quirky results worth noting.

According to the survey:

  • Americans trust doctors, especially if they’re on TV. For example, Dr. Oz (#16) and Sanjay Gupta (#17) outscored respected medical authors Andrew Weil (#75) and Deepak Chopra (#92).
  • Americans also trust TV judges, such as Judge Judy (#28) and Judge Joe Brown (#39), more than they do real-life Supreme Court judges, including Sam Alito (#60) and Elena Kagan (#62).
  • Some strange relative rankings include: Johnny Depp (#35) who outscored Oprah Winfrey (#59), Billy Graham #67) and Condoleezza Rice (#68);  and Adam Sandler (#64) who edged out Barack Obama (#65), but both were far behind Michelle Obama (#19).
  • The top four people on the list are all actors: Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep. At the bottom of the 200 candidates were celebrities with damaged brands, including Lance Armstrong and Kim Kardashian.
  • In addition to its untrustworthy headline, Reader’s Digest fesses up in the article that its editors had removed the three highest scorers from its Top 100 list, which were “your own doctor” (77%), “your own spiritual advisor” (71%) and “your own child’s current teacher” (66%).
  • Given 15 categories, the most trusted professions were 1. Doctors, 2. Teachers, 3. Movie Stars, 4. Philanthropists, and 5. Spiritual Leaders. Not surprisingly, Business Leaders and Financial Experts were ranked 11th  and 12th, respectively, just ahead of Politicians and Political Pundits.
  • Only 6 active business leaders made the Top 100 list, and all near the tail end, led by Warren Buffett (#71), Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (#78), Alex Gorsky of J&J (#86), Ken Powell of General Mills (#93), Steve Balmer of Microsoft (#94) and Steve Forbes of Forbes Media (#97).

Celebrity publicists will likely use these ranking to justify image overhauls for their low-scoring clients. But Reader’s Digest’s “Top 100 Most Trusted People” ranking really only validates America’s low-brow pop culture, and does not fairly reflect the integrity or character of any one of the 200 people on its arbitrary list.

In addition to “integrity and character,” Reader’s Digest asked its poll takers to rank the trust levels of its 200 candidates in terms of “exceptional talent and drive, internal moral compass, message, honesty and leadership.” But it’s an impossible task to rank someone on any of those criteria, unless you have first-hand experience with that individual over a long period of time.

Here are some the criteria this writer uses to measure trustworthiness of people, regardless of their profession or position of authority:

  1. DO THEY WALK THE TALK? I trust people who make good on their promises. And if they can’t deliver, they’re pro-active about explaining why they failed to meet your expectations.
  2. ARE THEY TRANSPARENT? Trustworthy people have no hidden agendas. Yes means yes, and no means no…which translates into no unpleasant surprises.
  3. DO THEY FOLLOW THE GOLDEN RULE? I trust people who treat a waiter in a restaurant, or the person cutting their lawn, with the same level of courtesy and respect they would display with their boss, or a prospective client.
  4. ARE THEY FAIR? Trustworthy people always explain the rules of the game, don’t play favorites, and base recognition and rewards on a meritocracy.

What are some of the criteria you apply to determine if an individual (or an organization) is worthy of your trust?

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Did The New York Times Purposely Fuel the Goldman Controversy?

A Compromised Value Proposition?

If the biggest loser in disgruntled employee Greg Smith’s recent OpEd piece was Goldman Sachs, then the apparent winner in this high-profile media sideshow was The New York Times. Rarely has an opinion piece on any topic, published in any major newspaper or periodical, attracted so much attention and controversy.

The veracity of Mr. Smith’s opinion and the timeliness of his topic notwithstanding, is it ever appropriate for a publication as widely read and long-respected as The New York Times to provide a platform for one disgruntled employee? In publishing Mr. Smith’s description of Goldman’s shortcomings, and his heartfelt reasons for quitting the firm, did The New York Times supply an inherent level of credibility and endorsement of Mr. Smith’s position?

If The New York Times was genuinely interested in presenting its readers with a balanced viewpoint – traditionally a fundamental responsibility of the Fourth Estate – would it not have given Goldman Sachs an equal editorial platform to present the firm’s response to Mr. Smith – ideally in the same issue and on the same page as Mr. Smith’s OpEd piece? Or was the element of surprise part of the publication’s marketing strategy?

In the Greg Smith / Goldman Sachs matter, The New York Times appears to have borrowed a page from the playbook of now defunct Jobvent.com, a website that pioneered a viral platform for anonymous employees to post their titillating rants on real and imagined injustices by their employers.

As the line separating bona fide news reporting from entertainment continues to erode, and as advertising revenues disappear, in its decision to print Mr. Smith’s largely unsubstantiated viewpoint, The New York Times may be complicit in trading in its legendary journalistic standards for a temporary spike in brand recognition and readership.

By delivering self-serving content of this caliber, the Gray Lady likely revealed more about its own integrity than that of Goldman Sachs.

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