PR is at the crossroads, but so are the regular media

PR has been making news for the wrong reasons, with everyone from Kim Kardashian to government departments shown up for invented case studies, undisclosed sponsorships and conflicts of interest. So who can we believe, asks Adrian Michaels.

August has not been a glorious month for the PR industry. I loved and winced at PR Week’s exposure of the awful doings at Fuel, the PR agency, and its dodgy case study picked up by the Press Association. It was subsequently published by such large outlets as the Mail, Mirror and Huffington Post.

(Disclosure: the PR Week analysis of events quotes me, which is nice.)

But it’s also been a terrible few weeks for ordinary media outlets, whose increasing propensity towards laziness, lack of disclosure and attempts to maintain output levels while slashing budgets is just asking for their media properties to be abused by PRs.

As well as the Fuel farrago, in-house communications “professionals” at the Department for Work and Pensions have been inventing case studies. The BBC, CNN and CNBC were meanwhile exposed for having current affairs programmes sponsored by foreign governments, NGOs and charities anxious to tilt the news agenda in their favour and succeeding.

We’re dumb if we don’t see these events as related. It’s about doing more while cutting corners, having next to no resources and hoping no one notices. They are also related to murky and undeclared sponsorships and payments in social media outlets, whereby the likes of Kim Kardashian broadcast their chosen news to massive followings. These people are also happy to take money for promotions and cut corners on disclosure.

There needn’t be significant harm in charities, companies, PR agencies and others helping news outlets to find material that their audiences will want to consume, provided there is full disclosure.

Good case studies and human interest stories are hard to find but they make tales far more readable. Inevitably the people held up as case studies are very often friends or acquaintances of people working on the story at the media end or on the product at the company or advisor ends. The important thing is that there is proper disclosure of all relevant facts and that the story has not been perverted in some way to increase the chances of publicity.

There are codes of conduct related to case studies in the media – particularly as regards the use of children, on consent, or on whether money has changed hands. But much of it is common sense. Fuel and Odaban, the deodorant client at the centre of the sweaty and inappropriate case study, could have averted any damage to reputation if they had expressly said they had changed the name of the woman involved at her request, and that her employer works as an advisor to the company.

The story, which just so happened to involve a young, presentable woman with a photogenic neckline, might well have been picked up by the Press Association anyway, which would have included all the disclaimers necessary.

Now the lack of proper disclosure has harmed the story irreparably, no matter how valid the case study was in the first place. It doesn’t matter that Fuel is saying that the story was true in all respects except the name of the person involved. What matters most is that PA felt strongly enough about it to pull the story. It means the agency and the product have got a lot of relationship building to do. Worse, PA will feel that its stories will be overly scrutinised by its clients and that its integrity will be questioned. By acting swiftly it is doing its best to minimise that damage.

The underlying issues here are credibility and integrity. There was a clear potential for conflict of interest here, and it should and could have been dealt with at the outset. Now credibility and integrity are clouded, we don’t know whom to believe.

But I believe that the blame lies on both sides. Media outlets are nearly all in financial crisis and as a result have slashed headcount. This has particularly hurt more experienced and more expensive heads. As a result, as I say in the PR Week analysis, journalists, many of them nearer the beginning of their careers than the end, are under more work pressure to write more stories per day or week than ever before. Fact checking and time to research one’s own pieces are sadly often taking a back seat to cut-and-paste and follow the herd. How many outlets picked up this Odaban story from PA? And how many only after the Mail or Mirror had run it?

The relationship between PRs and media is entirely based on trust. Importantly, and what is often overlooked, is that this starts at the PR end. The very best external agency PRs are empowered by their clients to build relationships over time with journalists whom they learn to trust to handle information fairly, intelligently and with balance.

In turn, the journalists learn which PRs are worth knowing and cultivating as trusted sources. The result is a better informed readership, consuming stories that are more balanced, with more information and more context. It is the readers who suffer whenever something happens that calls any of that into question.

And it is the readers who are suffering now from all this commercialism, laziness and mendacity – from Kim Kardashian’s non-advert and made-up government case studies, to news agendas driven by charities and the dreadful work of paid shills of deodorant purveyors.

We say always and repeatedly at FirstWord that readers aren’t stupid. And they don’t mind if there are people behind the articles they consume who are trying to sell them things. But these relationships must be declared.

It would be good if we could see these trends as short-lived, bad-smelling episodes on the way to greater disclosure while the media scramble to restore their reputation.

But sadly I would guess that almost all the bad behaviour goes unnoticed. Conflicts of deodorant interest, for example, will not be widely discussed, debated or declared no matter how many publications have now pulled the story online.

First, not every publication will do so, and you can see with an online search that it has been picked up by a number of foreign outlets. Second the story has already been cut, pasted and shared across social media by ordinary people broadcasting news to their friends. These new media owners – the account holders on Facebook and Twitter ­– won’t notice or know that the Press Association has pulled its story. From the perspective of Odaban and Fuel, they probably got the message out as widely as they could have hoped for. And they did it with bad behaviour, no matter how careless or inadvertent, which cashed in on the increasingly slapdash and cash-strapped declining standards in the regular media.

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